In the hymnal, Emma Smith, wife of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith, collected 90 "sacred hymns" for use in the newly formed "Church of Latter-day Saints" (the words "Jesus Christ" later were added to the church's name). The book contained 33 original hymns written by Mormons and 57 hymns that originated with the Baptists and the Campbellites
The hymnal's high asking price reflects the book's importance in Mormon history, its completeness (no missing pages) and its relative scarcity - no one knows how many copies were printed but fewer than a dozen are in private hands.
Christie's claims only two other copies of the hymnal - both imperfect, one seriously defective - have been offered at auction since 1945 (one copy offered twice). But others say one sold in 1968 for about $2,500.
Since then, the value has increased a hundredfold.
"I think [Christie's asking price] is low," said Brent Ashworth, who has been collecting Mormon books and documents for 45 years. "Some have gone for over $350,000. I sold one for over $200,000 several years ago. I'm aware of another copy privately being sold; the owner wants $500,000."
Ashworth, who now runs B Ashworth's, a Provo store that deals in rare books and documents, has a personal - and painful - history with the hymnal.
More than 20 years ago, he bought another Emma Smith hymnal from Mormon forger Mark Hofmann. Hofmann got the hymnal in a trade with the LDS Church because it was missing a back page, making it less valuable. Then Hofmann printed a page on old paper and glued it into the book, enabling him to get top dollar for it - about $10,000.
Ashworth sold his hymnal to another collector while Hofmann's forgeries escalated to encompass signed documents, bank notes, handwritten letters and printed works, including the "Oath of a Freeman," the first printed document in the United States. In October 1985, he murdered two people to cover up his deception but finally was exposed as a fraud and went to prison for life. The hymnal's worth diminished dramatically.
Collectors today are more careful about an item's provenance, tracking where a document has been (people aren't buying the "I found it at a garage sale" story), and who has owned it. But they have not developed any technological tests to examine whether a seller has tampered with a book or document. If just adding a page can make a book complete and thus dramatically improve its value from a few thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars, what's to stop the unscrupulous from doing so?
"I really don't think it's a problem, People like [Hofmann] are pretty rare, but that's not to say there's not somebody out there," Ashworth said. "There's no litmus test that somebody using a different technique couldn't put it past a collector like me."
Collecting by its nature is dangerous, especially when it comes to expensive items, he said. "It makes it awfully easy for someone with talent and ability to pass on a fake."
Though he is not planning to bid on the hymnal today, Ashworth is confident Christie's investigated the book's provenance and condition.
No one at Christie's was available Monday to describe the company's efforts to authenticate the hymnal. In its catalogue, it simply says the book was "a previously unrecorded copy."
That's not necessarily a cause for worry, said Curt Bench of Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City. "It's kind of exciting to know that there's another copy we didn't know about before."
Bench thinks the chances of the book being fraudulent are small.
"I assume people at Christie's have done their homework on provenance," he said. "They would have consulted with people familiar with rare books and probably with rare Mormon books."
It is not practical to subject every rare book and document to physical tests. The cost would be prohibitive and most people wouldn't even know how to go about it.
"I still have confidence in the industry," Bench said. "Most of the fraud that has happened in the last few decades has not been with the books themselves but that they were stolen or misrepresented. There aren't that many examples of books that have been altered to change their values significantly."
The bidding will be finished by the end of the day.
* PEGGY FLETCHER STACK can be contacted at email@example.com or 801-257-8725.
Rare Mormon treasure
The 1835 hymnal compiled by Emma Smith, wife of Mormon church founder Joseph Smith:
* Contains 90 hymns, 33 original LDS and 57 borrowed from other Christian faiths;
* Is valued among top three Mormon books;
* Goes on sale today at Christie's Auction House in New York City with an estimated value of $200,000 to $300,000.