Within the larger world of book collecting, the market for Mormon books has become a very active field in the past 20 years.
The 1830 first edition of the Book of Mormon has always been the cornerstone. Its appeal as the first printing of the scripture of a major world religious denomination, released just days before the official establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is obvious.
While first editions of the Bible or Koran are beyond the reach of collectors, the Book of Mormon can be found at auction perhaps once or twice a year, with other copies showing up regularly in the retail market.
Published from Joseph Smith’s manuscript by a country printer in Palmyra, New York, the Book of Mormon is unusual among the world’s most collectible first editions, as almost every copy is unique.
At least 41 printing variations have been spotted on various pages of the first-edition volumes, and the uncorrected and corrected sheets were bound together in so many combinations that there may be no two copies with completely identical text.
However, they were all issued with the same distinctive brown calf binding, with seven double bands of gilt across the backstrip and a leather tag reading “Book of Mormon.” These bindings were not particularly durable. A copy in a well-preserved original binding gets a substantial premium.
The other big factor is provenance, with high prices going to copies signed by important early members of the church or owned by famous collectors.
Charles L. Woodward was one of the first major collectors of Mormon books, though he was not LDS and not particularly sympathetic. He sold his collection in an 1880 auction at Bangs & Company in New York, with a catalogue titled "Bibliothica-Scallawagiana: Catalogue of a Matchless Collection of Books ... Relating to Mormonism." The sale included a first-edition Book of Mormon for what now seems like a scandalously low price of $10.
The market grew steadily over the next century as the church increased in size and stature. In the famous Herbert Auerbach sale of 1947, a fine copy of the first edition caused a stir when it brought $170. But the record auction price for a first-edition Book of Mormon as of 1990 was still only $4,180.
From 1996 to 2007, the price exploded, with new records being set almost every year: $19,550, $32,200, $41,800, $48,300, $56,400 and $82,250. In 2007, a presentation copy from Hyrum Smith signed by Orson Pratt brought $180,000 at Swann Auction Galleries, still a record by a wide margin.
The auction price for a typical copy seems to have stabilized at about $60,000, though that can always be surpassed for a special copy with important provenance.
Numerous book dealers specialize in Mormon books, many of them in the Salt Lake City area. Ken Sanders is probably the most well-known, thanks to his frequent appearances on "Antiques Roadshow." Utah has never had its own book auction house, though.
Most of the copies sold at auction have gone through New York auction houses with large book departments such as Swann, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Bonhams. The last four copies to come to auction have all been through Swann, each selling for between $50,000 and $62,500 after spirited telephone bidding from across the county. The most recent copy sold on Sept. 17 for $57,500.
Also offered were more than 20 Mormon lots from Milton R. Slater, who quietly collected a superb collection of Mormon books and manuscripts over several decades, including a 1846 Nauvoo printing of the Doctrine and Covenants (sold for $27,500), a copy of Fanny Stenhouse’s "An Englishwoman in Utah" inscribed by Arthur Conan Doyle (sold for $5,250) and two rare pamphlets which Slater acquired at the famous Thomas W. Streeter sale back in 1968 — Aitken's "Journey up the Mississippi from its Mouth to Nauvoo" (sold for $5,500) and Greene's "Facts Relative to the Expulsion of the Mormons" (sold for $12,500).
We don’t know what will come through the doors next, but we are sure that Mormon books will remain a vigorous collecting area for many years to come.
Rick Stattler is director of printed and manuscript Americana at Swann Auction Galleries.