Rare Book of Mormon Found

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SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) -- A 177-year-old first edition of the Book of Mormon found in a home near Palmyra -- the birthplace of the Mormon religion -- will be put up for bid next week at an upstate New York estate auction.

The rare book was discovered at the bottom of a box of books by workers cleaning out the house, said Mark Witmer, manager of the Hessney Auction Co. in Geneva, N.Y.

"We had to throw the other books out. The box was already packed when we found it. It was right at the bottom. When I picked it up, I froze. I used to own an antiquarian book store, so I knew what it was right away," Witmer said Friday.

Witmer said he would not identify the owner.

"I believe the current owner acquired it at some point," he said.

"It has some handwriting in the very front on the border that says 'Scarce. First edition' done in pencil the way a book dealer would normally do it. Underneath it, it has been erased, but it looks like it says $25 or $250 or something like that," Witmer said.

The book will be sold Wednesday during a combined estate auction at the company's center in Geneva .

Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints consider the Book of Mormon to be scripture on par with the Bible.

Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion, said he translated the book from gold plates delivered to him by an angel. The first editions were printed and published by E. B. Grandin in Palmyra, N.Y., in 1830. While there were roughly 5,000 copies printed, only a few hundred still exist.

Hessney's book is in good, unrestored condition with its original binding. However, the gold-leaf lettering has worn off and a blank page in the front is missing, Witmer said.

Latter-Day Harvest, a Utah-based book seller with stores in Palmyra and Nauvoo, Ill., is selling a first edition Book of Mormon for $100,000, Witmer said.

"If theirs is up for sale for $100,000 we will presumably get less than that ... but it will be considerably more than $25 or $250," Witmer said.

The auction has already attracted a great deal of attention from rare book collectors and religious historians. Witmer said he's received dozens of calls from across the country; several prospective bidders have said they would be flying to Geneva to attend.

Increasing interest in rare Mormon documents has sent prices booming in the past decade, said John Hajicek, a private collector from Missouri who owns 75 first editions of the Book of Mormon among his $20 million collection of rare books.

There are about 250 first editions held in private collections (including his) and perhaps an equal number yet undiscovered, Hajicek said. Research libraries and museums hold about 50 copies, he said.

In March, Auction Galleries of New York City sold a first edition for $180,000 -- $150,000 bid plus a 20 percent buyer's premium -- among the highest prices ever paid for documents associated with the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

That first edition was signed by early apostle Orson Pratt. An inscription by the book's original owner, Denison Root, indicated the book was a gift from Joseph Smith's brother, Hyrum Smith.

In 1997, Sotheby's auction house sold a first edition for $32,200. In 2000, an unnamed buyer purchased a first edition at a West Virginia auction for $44,000.

Hajicek paid $58,000 for a copy in 1999 during an auction in Salt Lake City. He said he would be in Geneva to bid on the Hessney copy.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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