Several weeks ago, according to the owner of an upstate New York auction company, he and his staff were combing through the belongings of an elderly man about to enter a nursing home. The house was just outside Palmyra, the birthplace of the Mormon religion, and amid the attic clutter, at the bottom of a box of books, was the treasure: a 177-year-old first-edition copy of the Book of Mormon.
At an auction held yesterday in nearby Geneva, an undisclosed bidder from the East Coast paid $105,600, including the auctioneer’s commission, for the book, which is considered sacred by Mormons. There were originally 5,000 first-edition copies of the Book of Mormon, and some collectors estimate that fewer than 500 may remain today.
Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon, one of three books of Mormon Scripture beyond the Bible, was translated from golden tablets that Joseph Smith Jr. of Palmyra discovered in a hillside in the 1820s. He was the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon Church.
“It’s a terribly important book to the Latter-day Saints and is absolutely the foundation of their belief system,” said Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar of Mormonism and professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
In recent years, interest has soared in first-edition Mormon documents, as have the prices paid at auction.
In March, another first-edition Book of Mormon sold for a record $180,000, said Rebecca Weiss, a spokeswoman for Swann Auction Galleries in Manhattan. That copy had a special provenance. Not only was it signed by Orson Pratt, one of the first 12 church apostles, but an inscription indicated that the book was also given to the owner by Joseph Smith’s brother, Hyrum Smith. “All of that really led to the extraordinary price,” Ms. Weiss said.
At the auction yesterday in the Finger Lakes city of Geneva, the opening bid was $77,500. The book was an unrestored copy with the original binding, and its discovery immediately drew national interest.
While Palmyra has many Mormons and is historically significant, it is predominantly a working-class town that is struggling financially. Of the 20 people who showed up saying they were there to at least see the rare book, only one said he intended to place a bid.
“We knew it was a big-buck item, and it wasn’t something the local Mormon population was going to be able to afford,” said Roberta Hessney, who owns Hessney Auction Company with her husband, Joseph Hessney.
Indeed, the real action was off-site. Six bidders were on the phone, and another five were absentee bidders who had put in a maximum bid beforehand. Both groups were primarily from California and Utah, where the largest concentrations of Mormons live. In six minutes, the bidding ended at $105,600.
Mr. Hessney, whose company handled the sale, said that his manager, Mark Witmer, was the one who discovered the copy in the attic in Newark, N.Y., about seven miles east of Palmyra. The owner, whom he would not identify, had apparently misplaced it years ago.
“At first, the gentleman didn’t remember it,” Mr. Hessney said. “But after we told him about it, he said that he did remember it, and that he purchased it in the 1930s when he was a boy, when he was 15 or 16. It was one of the first antiques he owned, and he said he had been looking for it.”
Alfred L. Bush, the retired curator of Western Americana in the Princeton University Library and an expert on Mormon books, said that while the Book of Mormon is not rare, it is “desired and collected, so the prices have been steadily going up.” He owns a first-edition Book of Mormon with the original binding that he bought 45 years ago for $50.
The most coveted Mormon book is actually the first edition of the Book of Commandments, Smith’s revelations, which were published shortly after the Book of Mormon. Local mobs in Missouri that were persecuting Mormons destroyed the printing press, as well as the books, and only about a dozen first-edition copies survive, according to Mr. Bush. Princeton University owns such a copy, which Mr. Bush estimated was worth about $1 million.
Just how many first editions of the Book of Mormon remain is unclear. Jared F. Brown, president of Latter-day Harvest, a bookseller in Ogden, Utah, said he doubted that more than 10 percent of the original 5,000 copies survived. Mr. Bush said research libraries and museums hold about 100 first editions.
While the Mormon faith started in New York, most of its followers were driven west. Smith led his followers first to Ohio, then to Missouri and then Illinois, where he was killed in 1844.