PROVO — With 20 minutes left Tuesday night in an online auction for afirst edition Book of Mormon, bidding was stagnant. Nobody had bid for three days. The price was stuck at $35,000.
Suddenly, with 16 minutes to go, a bidder who had been silent since Saturday rejoined the auction at $35,500.
From that point, seven people engaged in strategic bidding so furious they triggered a rule that extended the auction past the deadline. The bidders and the extension combined to drive up the price by $45,000 in 36 minutes.
"It shows there is a very strong market for a first edition Book of Mormon, because this one had defects," said one of the bidders, Reid Moon, owner of Moon's Rare Books in Provo. "The front cover was completely replaced, and not very well."
Another bidder had scoffed at the condition of this copy at first. Then John Hajicek, an expert on American religious artifacts in Independence, Missouri, looked closer at the 50 pictures posted at Everything But The House.
"The dry internal pages were some of the best-preserved pages I had ever seen on these 188-year-old books," he said. "That book is a very nice book, actually."
Besides, the market for a first edition Book of Mormon is accelerating again.
"Since December," Hajicek said, "I have seen new records set every time a book trades hands, and the price is once again outpacing the stock market, with lots of people jostling to buy a copy."
When the deadline for Tuesday's auction arrived at 6:30 p.m. MST, the high bid was $58,750. The person who had held the high bid for three days was already done, topping out at $36,666.
Moon tapped out five minutes before the deadline with a final bid of $50,100.
The auction didn't end on time. First it was extended for five minutes because the final bid came in within five minutes of the deadline. Then each additional bid triggered a new, five-minute extension. The strategy intensified.
Multiple bidders used the auction house's proxy or increment bidding system. The system allowed bidders to enter a secret amount. Then a computer made bids for them up to that amount in increments of $1,000 or $1,500 each time another bidder made a bid.
Once the bidding reached $60,750, only Hajicek and one other bidder remained. Over the next 18 minutes, they went back and forth through 17 more bids.
At 8:43 p.m., the unknown other bidder posted a bid of $77,500.
Sitting in a hotel room in Lehi, Hajicek had five minutes to bid or lose. He paused for a minute. Then two. Then four. The clock ticked down to 30 seconds, then 20. With 10 seconds left, Hajicek bid $78,500.
The other person took 15 seconds to go to $79,500, but Hajicek had already placed a proxy bid. As soon as the other person's final bid went up, the computer posted Hajicek's bid of $80,000.
Five minutes later, the Book of Mormon was his.
He can't wait to receive the book. He was intrigued by a signature and a notation on the book's first free flyleaf. The notation reads, "Price 1 dollar." The signature appears to be that of Joseph Smith or Joseph F. Smith. Hajicek believed the unverified handwriting resembles that of Joseph Smith.
Moon bought an above-average first edition Book of Mormon in a private sale on Monday for $90,000. But Moon, Hajicek and another book dealer said Tuesday's public auction is a better indicator of where the Mormon market is going.
"That's a lot of money for a defective copy," said Curt Bench, owner of Benchmark Books in Salt Lake City. "That says a lot about the market."
"I paid exactly what I wanted to pay for the book," Hajicek said. "I hoped to get the book for about $35,000, but I think the price was the market price for that particular copy in that condition."
Moon said the price was reasonable.
"The market was passing $100,000 for good copies, with excellent copies at $120,000 or more," he said. "The price for this copy with flaws shows that good copies are moving into the $125,000 range."
The highest price paid for a first edition Book of Mormon in a public sale is $180,000, a deal that happened in March 2007 before the economic downturn.
Private sales have gone higher, Moon and Hajicek said.
They should know. Hajicek said he's traded roughly 100 copies of the first edition. Moon said about 200 have passed through his hands.
Other rare Mormon publications have sold for far more. Several first edition copies of the Book of Commandments have sold for more than $1 million, Bench said.
In September, using money provided by donors, the LDS Church paid $35 million for the original printer's manuscript of the Book of Mormon.