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Swann Auction Galleries, New York, NY, 2007
A page of a rare second edition of the church hymnal is shown, left, and the title page from a first edition of The Book of Mormon, right. The books each sold for $180,000 at public auction.

Some person or organization in Salt Lake City purchased a rare LDS hymnal at auction on Thursday for $180,000 — several times the expected price, and the same price was paid by another buyer in the northeastern United States for a first edition Book of Mormon at a rare documents auction in New York City.

The purchase price for both items is believed to be among the highest ever paid for historic documents associated with the early history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Rebecca Weiss, a media relations representative for Swann Galleries, said the actual high bid for each item was $150,000, but the gallery adds a 20 percent buyer's premium that brought the cost to $180,000 each. The hymnal had been expected to bring from $30,000 to $40,000 and the Book of Mormon from $70,000 to $90,000.

"You never know what will happen at auctions," Weiss said. "We had multiple interested parties competing for the same lots. When that happens, who knows what things will sell for." The books were sold to buyers bidding by phone during the spirited auction, she said, adding the auction house doesn't identify bidders or buyers.

The first edition Book of Mormon, in its original binding, was signed by early LDS apostle Orson Pratt, and an inscription by its owner, Denison Root, indicates "the book was a gift from Hyrum Smith," brother of church founder Joseph Smith.

What the early catalog listing for the book didn't say was that Root was married to Phoebe Hale, sister to Emma Hale, who was the wife of Joseph Smith. "That makes the association of the book even more fascinating, though I don't think that information got out to the general public," Weiss said.

Latter-day Saints consider the Book of Mormon to be scripture on par with the Bible. Smith said he translated the book from gold plates delivered to him by an angel, and first edition copies of the book — printed in 1830 — have skyrocketed in price during the past decade. Of the 5,000 original copies, a few hundred are known to remain in circulation.

Increasingly hefty price tags at public sales of the first edition copies in the past decade illustrate the booming interest in rare Mormon documents, according to Missouri-based collector John Hajicek, who declined comment on the prices paid by the buyers at Thursday's auction or whether he had participated in the bidding.

Hajicek said his collection of documents is worth "$10 million fair-market value" and he believes it is the largest such collection in the world. He has said in the past that he owns multiple copies of the first edition Book of Mormon.

The Pratt-signed copy likely fetched a significantly higher price than unsigned copies have in the past decade because of its provenance, but public sale prices have increased dramatically during that time. For example:

• Sotheby's auction house sold a first edition Book of Mormon for $32,200 in 1997. At the time, a Sotheby's spokesman said the bidding "certainly far exceeded our expectations. It was by far a world auction record for that book," which was projected to sell for between $7,000 and $10,000.

• Hajicek paid $58,000 for a copy in 1999 during an auction at the Western Historical Artifacts and Paper Money Show in Salt Lake City.

• An unnamed buyer purchased a first edition at a West Virginia estate auction in 2000 for $44,000, a price one rare document dealer at the time termed "a steal."

The hymnal, titled "A Collection of Sacred Hymns, for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," was compiled by Smith's wife, Emma, and was published in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1841. A press release announcing the sale said the rare first edition "has not appeared at auction in the last 100 years."

Hajicek said the first edition hymnal was printed in 1835, and the auctioned book was a second edition that is "still very rare, probably more so than anyone thought." He said collectors are interested in it because of Section 25 of the faith's scripture, Doctrine and Covenants, "essentially classifies this as a sacred book equivalent to scripture. Because the second edition has more hymns than the first edition, that makes it in some sense the first printing of some scripture."

He said the hymnal that sold "was a $12,000 book in 1993 — now it's at $180,000. That tells you a lot." After collecting for 25 years, Hajicek said he has his own large hymn book collection, and there are "a dozen important ones" now in circulation among collectors.

Chris Jones, a buyer's representative, was at the Swann auction Thursday and bid $120,000 for the Book of Mormon, "but it went to $150,000 real fast." He spent all day Wednesday examining the collection, with particular interest in the Mormon documents. He said the book "was in very nice condition. It needs a little leather work," but "the history of the book is wonderful."

The price on the hymnal "surprised us all. I went up to $80,000 on that, but they went by that awful fast. It was in wonderful shape, and the same size as the 1835 edition that Emma (Smith) published in Kirtland. 'A real sweet book' is the way I'd describe it."

Local rare book dealer Ken Sanders said Swann Galleries contacted him six months ago to ask about authenticity of the Pratt signature. "I predicted then — and again earlier today — that the Pratt Book of Mormon would sell from $150,000 to $200,000. Fortunately, I didn't predict the hymnal. If I had, I would have been dead wrong. I thought it would go for $75,000, so I was astounded when it went for twice that."

Sanders attributes the soaring prices to "a growing religion with an increasingly affluent base of members and you're getting nontraditional folks buying — they're not book collectors. They're folks wanting an artifact of their religion. An 1830 Book of Mormon is what started it all. Those Palmyra editions for LDS people have become the Holy Grail of Mormon book collecting."

After today's sale, he said, "you'll be hard pressed to find any first edition sold for under $100,000." Good news for owners and collectors, and apparently a push for those considering the rare LDS book market.

"We've sold over six figures worth of rare LDS books today," Sanders said, "and I attribute that to the auction. Thank you, Swann!"

E-mail: carrie@desnews.com