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First US settler book could fetch $30 million at auction

Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images

The first book of psalms printed in what was to become the United States is expected to sell for a world record-breaking figure at auction on Tuesday.

The "Bay Psalm Book" is an extremely rare text of sacred songs printed by America's first Puritan settlers, who established a colony in the Massachusetts Bay area after leaving England in the early 1600s.

Sotheby's auction house has set an estimate for the sale of $15 million-$30 million which would overtake the record for a printed book of $11.5 million, held by a rare copy of John James Audubon's 'Birds of America,' sold in 2010.

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The book, with its proper title of "The Whole Book of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre" dates from 1640. It was made using a printing press sent from England and some 1,700 copies were produced for the early settler congregations.

The first Puritan settlers had left England because they wanted to reform Church of England doctrine. Although they already had psalm books, they wanted a translation that would more exactly express Hebrew scripture in verse, hence their creation of the "Bay Psalm" versions, Sothebys stated on its website.

Although reprinted more than 50 times over the next century, most of the first editions have not survived and only 11 are thought to still exist, making the book more valuable in terms of rarity and marking the first book printed in colonial history.

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The book was printed by Stephen Day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who Sotheby's notes is remembered as America's first printer. His "lack of experience" in the art is visible, however, with typographical errors and inconsistent spelling throughout the book, the auction house noted. In Day's defence, however, he is noted to have been a locksmith by trade.

"His edition of The Whole Booke of Psalmes is not just a book; it is a sacred relic of America's founding and a touchstone of America's material and intellectual culture. In no other country has the product of the hand printing press had the historical impact that it did in the United States," Sotheby's notes.

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The book is being sold by Boston's historic Old South Church, which has two copies of the text, at Sotheby's auction house in New York on Tuesday and is the first time a Bay Psalm Book has reached the market since 1947.

- By CNBC's Holly Ellyatt, follow her on Twitter @HollyEllyatt