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Joseph Smith’s Bible for sale at $1.5 million

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SALT LAKE CITY — The rarest of rare books, a one-of-a-kind family Bible, has surfaced in Salt Lake City and it's going on sale at an asking price of $1.5 million. That's because its original owner was evidently Joseph Smith Jr., the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"It is, in fact, unique," said rare-books dealer Ken Sanders. "It's the only copy in the world, the family Bible belonging to the founder of Mormonism and his first wife, Emma Hale Smith."

Sanders has been keeping the book locked up in a safe at his Salt Lake City store while he looks for a buyer. He said the 1831 edition of the Bible was originally purchased by Joseph Smith Jr. when the family lived in Kirtland, Ohio. It's been out of sight for many years, apparently cherished for generations by descendants of Emma Hale Smith. In 1979, the Smith family sold it to a friendly outsider, Buddy Youngreen. He published photos of it in the LDS Church magazine Ensign in 1984.

The current owner is something of a mystery. Youngreen said he sold the book 15 years ago to an anonymous buyer. Sanders said he's been asked to sell it on consignment for a family that has asked to remain anonymous.

An ordinary copy of the 1831 edition of "The Holy Bible" would be worth, at most, a few hundred dollars. But this is no ordinary copy. Between the pages of the Old Testament and the New Testament is a Smith family genealogy. It's a handwritten record of marriages, births and deaths in the Smith family. Sanders said the handwriting has been authenticated as that of Joseph and Emma Smith.

According to Sanders, the Bible was one of the few personal possessions the Smith family kept as they fled mobs in Ohio and, later, in Missouri. After Joseph Smith's murder in Illinois in 1844, Emma Hale Smith kept the book until her death in 1879.

"Over the decades," Sanders said, "there has been an enormous amount of research in genealogy and into the provenance of the book and it's, it's rock solid."

Along with his announcement of the sale, Sanders released a statement outlining the chain of ownership. In 1879 it was inherited by Emma's son, Alexander Hale Smith. When he died in 1909, the book was left to his son, Arthur Marion Smith. He left it to his daughter Georgia Mae Smith, and she sold it in 1979 to Buddy Youngreen. He's not a member of the Smith family, but Youngreen has been instrumental in bringing Smith descendants together in recent decades.

Without revealing the current owners' name, Sanders said, "The book is being sold by the family for financial considerations and, in this economy, everyone needs the money."

In a written statement, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did not offer an opinion about the authenticity of the book. A church spokesman wrote, "We have known of this Bible's existence but have not been involved with determining its authenticity and have no current plans to attempt to purchase it."

Sanders said the book has been thoroughly examined and authenticated by experts and is well-known to those who specialize in early Mormon documents.

"I have absolutely no question of the provenance of this particular book and its authenticity," Sanders said.

According to Sanders, an almost identical copy of the Bible was purchased in 1831 by Joseph Smith's brother, Hyrum. That book is currently in the collection of the Harold B. Lee Library at Brigham Young University.

Whether the Joseph Smith Bible can command a price of $1.5 million is an unknown right now, but Sanders says there is precedent for it in the LDS rare document market. In a recent sale, the 1833 edition of Joseph Smith's "The Book of Commandments" sold for $1.7 million, Sanders said in a press release, even though 29 copies of that book are known to exist.

Sanders plans to display "The Family Bible of Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Hale Smith" in his store at 268 S. 200 East in Salt Lake City. It will be available for public viewing this week from Monday through Thursday during regular business hours, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Because of its apparent value, it will be displayed in a locked glass case.

e-mail: hollenhorst@ksl.com