- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 23, 2006

HAGERSTOWN, Md. — The antique Bible market is hot. But if you haven’t got the money to buy a first-edition King James Version, you still can get your hands on one at the Christian Heritage Museum, where the owner invites visitors to touch and purchase some of the 20,000 pieces in his collection.

Gene S. Albert Jr. isn’t selling his prized King James first edition, first issue, printed in 1611. The book, also known as a “he” Bible for a masculine pronoun in Ruth 3:15 that was changed to “she” in later versions, sits atop a bookcase in the loft of the climate-controlled barn near Hagerstown that houses his museum.

But Mr. Albert, who’s been collecting for 25 years, has other rarities for sale at www.christianheritagemuseum.com. They include a single page of a 1454 Gutenberg Bible priced at $20,000; a 1685 second edition of John Eliot’s Algonquin Indian Bible, the first Bible printed in America, for $175,000; and two handwritten sermon notes by 19th-century English evangelist Charles H. Spurgeon, marked down from $595 to $275 each.

Collecting and displaying such pieces is a passion for Mr. Albert, 54, a home builder, religious printmaker and graduate of Liberty Theological Seminary at Liberty University, the Baptist school in Lynchburg, Va., founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Welcoming a recent visitor to his museum, open free to the public by appointment, Mr. Albert picked up the King James first edition and encouraged his guest to touch a slightly yellowed page, its ornate letters and decorations still clearly legible after 395 years. The paper felt stiff and a little rough, like the cotton rags from which it was made.

Some might think that the owner of a such a rare book, easily worth $100,000, would balk at letting strangers handle it. Not Mr. Albert.

“We happen to believe that these were made and meant to be seen, and that’s why we put them out for the general public,” he said.

Liana Lupas, curator of the Scripture collection at the American Bible Society in New York, shares Mr. Albert’s desire to grant visitors up-close experiences with historic volumes such as the society’s three King James first editions.

“I want my books to be seen and appreciated,” Mrs. Lupas said. But, “if you let everybody just rifle through it, it’s going to be damaged.”

So, Mrs. Lupas said, scholars are the only visitors allowed to touch the rarest pieces in the society’s collection of 55,000 Bibles, Bible fragments and related documents.

“There’s some sort of delicate balance you want to achieve somehow,” she said.

In the marketplace, the balance favors sellers. Mrs. Lupas said the insured value of the society’s collection has quadrupled over the past 12 years. Robert Hodgson, dean of the society’s Nida Institute of Biblical Scholarship, said the collection is worth more than $12 million.

Mr. Hodgson said rare Bibles are considered good investments because of their historic value and fragility.

“Everything from mold, heat, humidity and insects attacks them,” he said. “The rare Bible is an endangered species.”

Demand has grown with the Internet, said David C. Lachman, an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia who specializes in theological works and Bibles.

“Things are going for much more money than they used to, as people understand the books are available,” he said. “A lot of people just sort of imagined that books of this sort could only be found in museums of one sort or another and didn’t understand that there are enough copies out there that they can actually be bought and sold.”

Mr. Lachman said demand is particularly strong for pre-1800 Indian Bibles — written like the Eliot Bible in phonetic languages invented by missionaries — and for individual pages, or leaves, of antique Bibles.

“People who can’t afford a whole Bible think it’s nice to have a leaf to frame and hang on a wall,” Mr. Lachman said.

Mr. Hodgson said some unscrupulous dealers deliberately destroy antique Bibles because they can sell the leaves for more than the book.

But Mr. Albert, whose Web site offers scores of Bible leaves, said the pages come from fragmented or damaged volumes that are sometimes included in the large lots of old books he buys at auctions.

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