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Free to a Good Home? Or For Sale to the Highest Bidder?

Free to a Good Home? Or For Sale to the Highest Bidder?

One of eleven extant copies of the Bay Psalm Book, among the first books printed in British North America, will soon be up for sale. Experts estimate it will go for $10 to $20 million. Did a private book collector die or decide to prune their collection? No, this particular volume is being sold by the Old South Church, a congregation in Boston. Opponents of the decision have expressed concerns that the book would be sold to a private collector. This despite the fact that the Old South Church owns two copies of the book and is only selling one.

Controversies like the one over the sale of the Bay Psalm Book have become increasingly common since the mid-twentieth century. Many museums and other institutions that hold cultural objects no longer believe they must hold such objects in the public trust in perpetuity. Much of the museum community has agreed on best practices for deciding whether to give up an object, yet those practices, and specific museums’ adherence to them, are still hotly contested.