First-edition Book of Mormon sells at auction for $80,000

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune The Book of Mormon first edition, 1830, on display at the LDS Church History Library, Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2014.

In a nail-biting, down-to-the-wire bidding war, a version of a book that can be had for free in many hotel room drawers was sold this week at auction for $80,000.

A first edition of the Book of Mormon, the founding text of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was auctioned by EBTH, an online auction house. The starting bid was $1, but the final 15 minutes of the weeklong auction were punctuated by rapidly rising bids in mostly $500 increments.

While not a record for a first-edition Book of Mormon — that was set at $180,000 in 2007 — it is almost double the price for another first-edition Book of Mormon sold in 2014 and significantly higher than another sold for $52,500 in 2016.

The winning bidder was a private collector, according to EBTH.

The first edition, printed in 1830, is most precious to Latter-day Saints because Joseph Smith, the faith’s founder, personally oversaw its production in a small storefront printer’s shop in Palmyra, N.Y. Thousands of Mormons visit a restored version of the shop in Palmyra each year.

Appraising another first edition of the Book of Mormon for “Antiques Roadshow” in 2013, Salt Lake City rare book specialist Ken Sanders said, “It isn’t technically the rarest of the editions of the Book of Mormon, but, for LDS people, it’s the one that everyone knows and understands and wants.”

Last year, the Community of Christ, which traces its roots to Smith, sold the printer’s manuscript of the first edition of the Book of Mormon to the Utah-based LDS Church for $35 million, the highest price ever paid for a religious manuscript.

The volume auctioned this week is one of 5,000 copies of the first edition. It was bound in pigskin and sold for between $1.25 and $1.75 in the printer’s store.

Two weeks after its publication, Smith, a farmer who reported an angel gave him golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon. The highlight of the volume tells of a visit by a resurrected Jesus Christ to the ancient Americas.

LDS missionaries have distributed — for free — more than 150 million copies of the Book of Mormon to date.