HAGERSTOWN, MD. — The antique Bible market is hot.
But if you don't have the money to buy a first edition King James Version you still can get your hands on one at the Christian Heritage Museum, whose owner invites visitors to touch and purchase some of the 20,000 pieces in his collection.
Gene 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 Albert, who's been collecting for 25 years, said he wants regular people and not just scholars to have access to the collection, hoping that viewing the artifacts will inspire them to accept Christ as their savior. Visiting the museum is free by appointment.
"We happen to believe that these were made and meant to be seen," he said, "and that's why we put them out for the general public."
On a recent tour, Albert picked up the King James first edition and encouraged a 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.
Most owners of rare books balk at letting strangers handle them.
Liana Lupas, curator of the Scripture collection at the American Bible Society in New York, shares Albert's desire to grant visitors up-close experiences with historic volumes. But, "if you let everybody just rifle through it, it's going to be damaged," she said.
So 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, including three King James first editions, Lupas said.
"There's some sort of delicate balance you want to achieve somehow," she said.
Depending on their condition, King James first editions can cost anywhere from $50,000 up to $400,000, according to David Lachman, an antiquarian book dealer in Philadelphia who specializes in theological works and Bibles.
Albert takes care with his collection by limiting the number of items that the public can handle and walking with them through the museum. And he said the King James first edition is made of a more durable paper that is less prone to disintegration, so the risk from touching it is smaller.
Collecting and displaying such pieces is a passion for Albert, a 54-year-old homebuilder, religious printmaker and graduate of Liberty Theological Seminary at Liberty University.
He also sells rarities at the museum. Among the items is 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 Spurgeon for $275 each.
In the marketplace, the sellers have the advantage.
Lupas said the insured value of the American Bible Society's collection has quadrupled over the past 12 years. According to Robert Hodgson, dean of the society's Nida Institute of Biblical Scholarship, it is now worth more than $12 million.
Demand has grown with the Internet.
"Things are going for much more money than they used to as people understand the books are available," Lachman 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."