Several angles of the first-edition Book of Mormon, printed in 1830, which sold for $80,000 at auction on Feb. 27, 2018. Photo courtesy of Everything But The House

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

(RNS) — 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 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of 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, 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 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for $35 million, the highest price ever paid for a religious manuscript.

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The volume auctioned this week is one of 5,000 copies in 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 claimed an angel gave him golden plates from which he translated the Book of Mormon, organized what would eventually become the LDS church.

Today, the LDS church has 15.8 million members worldwide and its missionaries have distributed — for free — more than 150 million copies of the Book of Mormon to date.