Billionaire David Rubenstein buys colonial Bay Psalm Book for $14.2 million


“I thought it was important to keep this historic American book in the country,” billionaire David Rubenstein said of his purchase of the Bay Psalm Book. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

In keeping with the season of buying and giving, serial donor David M. Rubenstein this week checked off yet another box on his “patriotic philanthropy” ledger.

The Carlyle Group co-founder, ranked by Forbes magazine as the 209th-wealthiest American, with $2.6 billion, paid a record $14.2 million for a copy of the Bay Psalm Book, said to be the first book printed in what became the United States.

Published in Cambridge, Mass., in 1640, the book is one of only 11 surviving copies and one of the rarest volumes in the world. It is also now the most expensive.

Rubenstein, 64, phoned in his bid Tuesday from Melbourne, Australia, where he is raising funds for his private-equity firm, which invests the money on behalf of its clients. He said he would put the book on revolving loan to several libraries.

“I thought it was important to keep this historic American book in the country, and I also thought I could expose more Americans to its significance — and the importance of books to our country — by having it displayed throughout the country at libraries that might not otherwise have a chance to display something quite so old and rare,” Rubenstein said.

The book failed to fetch a hoped-for price of as much as $30 million, but it easily exceeded the $11.5 million paid in December 2010 for another rare tome, John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America.”

The Bay Psalm Book bought by Rubenstein was one of two owned by Boston’s Old South Church and is one of the finest copies remaining of 1,700 that were originally printed.

Add it to a litany of Rubenstein “patriotic” gifts, starting with his purchase of a version of the Magna Carta six years ago for $21.3 million. The centuries-old document is now on permanent loan to the National Archives.

There was $4.5 million to the National Zoo to keep its panda happy, healthy and procreating. There was $7.5 million to repair the Washington Monument, $10 million for Mount Vernon and $10 million for Monticello.

To top it off, Rubenstein is giving $50 million to the Kennedy Center for everything from rehearsal space to administrative offices.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade.

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