Forget “American Pickers”:
Meet the Bible Pickers!
A Behind-the-Scenes Look Into the Largest Collector of Rare Bibles in World
A short while ago, a friend of mine told me about a website that he discovered while searching for the value of a Bible from the 1800s that he possessed.
And when I investigated the website for myself, I was stunned. I learned things about the history of Bibles that I never would have imagined.
And I couldn’t believe some of the amazing Bibles they had in their possession that they were selling.
I immediately contacted the owner, John Lawton Jeffcoat III, and completed an extensive interview with him. I’ve never met anyone with so much in-depth knowledge about the history of Bible production.
In fact, this article is just part one in a Bible-themed series featuring everything that John discussed, beginning with how someone gets involved in collecting rare or antique Bibles in the first place:
RGH: John, how did you get started collecting Bibles?
Back in the 1990s I started collecting Bibles, somewhat modestly at first. Human beings are collectors; we like to collect: we collect coins, stamps, baseball cards, comic books.
But for the Christian, what could possibly be more rewarding than to collect the ancient printings of God’s Word? Wouldn’t that be the most interesting thing that you could collect? That was the thought that occurred to me in the mid-1990s. At the time I lived in the Washington, D.C. area, and I started going to all the antiquarian bookshops in Washington, from Baltimore down to Fredericksburg. And I was very dismayed to find I couldn’t find anything printed before the 1800s. Nobody had them.
Back then there was no Internet, in the mid-1900s. I mean the Internet technically existed, but nobody really had it yet, so I did the next best thing. I went to my local public library and I pulled up the Yellow Pages telephone directory on microfilm for major metropolitan areas. I called all the major antiquarian book dealers with a quarter page or bigger ad. After about a hundred calls I came across a book dealer who told me I won’t find any Bibles that are more than two hundred years old because one man (Dr. Craig Lamp) has cornered the market.
Dr. Craig Lamp is the co-founder of late Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and one of the producers of the J. Vernon McGee through the Bible radio series.
He offered me his number, so I called him. We talked for about 20 minutes that day and 20 minutes the next day. I was so fascinated with this man. He told me he had a room with rare Bibles from the 1500s, 1600s, and 1700s — most of them in English, stacked floor to ceiling, a couple thousand volumes, and they were all for sale.
Based on those brief conversations, I got in my car and drove round-trip, over 1,000 miles. At the time he was located in the Indianapolis, Indiana area.
I met with Dr. Lamp who invited me to stay in his home. After two days I wrote him a check for one quarter of what I had earned that year because I was so taken with these ancient printings of God’s Word. I was 25 years old back in the mid-1990s. God bless him; he gave me a great deal and break. He cut his prices way down for me; he wanted to help me in my collecting.
Several months later, several thoughts occurred to me: I’m not a wealthy man, and I just spent a quarter of what I earned last year on rare antique Bibles, and I don’t regret it. There are people in this country who are wealthy. How many of them are Christians and would buy ancient copies of God’s Word if they only knew that they could?
The Internet was just starting to replace microfiche at the local library. I approached Dr. Lamp and asked if I could come back to his showroom and take photographs of a couple hundred examples of rare and antique bibles, and put them up on an Internet website. I requested exclusive rights to sell on the Internet, and he agreed. So I invested a couple hundred hours, took a lot of photos, and wrote a lot of descriptions. I put up an embarrassingly crude website by today’s standards, and by the grace of God came the wonderful domain GreatSite.com. Good luck getting a domain like that today.
People started calling me from around the world. I got calls from every corner of the globe saying, “Is this for real? Can we really purchase ancient copies of God’s Word that are 400 to 500 years old? They’re not all locked away in museums somewhere? And they’re not millions and millions of dollars each, as you would think they would be?”
They’re available starting at just a few thousand dollars! They would give me their credit card or they’d wire money to my account, and I would cooperate with Dr. Craig Lamp. I didn’t actually have the material. I was functioning as a middleman while Craig would ship the material. Within a few months I quit my job. I invested all my money, time, and resources. I discovered a small segment of society out there, affluent Christians, who wanted ancient copies of God’s Word.
A few years later, I spoke with Dr. Lamp and asked about making facsimile reproductions of selected popular ancient Bibles like the 1611 King James Bible, 1560 Geneva Bible, Wyclef, Tyndale, and Coverdale. So now, in most cases, for $200-$300 you can buy beautiful high resolution photographic copies of every page facsimile reproductions — not retyped settings. Just like the original. And those are on our website if you click on “facsimile reproductions.”
RGH: Bibles as part of a financial portfolio?
There is a shift away from fiat value investments towards intrinsic value investments. There has been a tremendous shift in asset class allocations in macroeconomic understanding within the United States economy in recent years.
And I’m not telling you anything you don’t know. You know. October of 2008 the world came to an end. The whole Lehman Brothers thing. And the banks were teetering on the edge of collapse, and the federal government took our money, money from future generations and started printing out money quantitative easing, devaluing the currency, bailing out this guy, bailing out that guy, bailed out the insurance industry AIG. Bailed out the automotive industry. Bailed out the banks. Sold us down the river of debt forever. And when they did that, the banks held onto all the money. They didn’t loosen up the first strings and try and ease the fall of the real estate market.
They used it to offset balance sheet assets and their 1.5 quadrillion dollar exposure to derivatives. Yeah, 1.5 quadrillion dollars of exposure to high risk derivatives. All the time telling us that the FDIC which has a poultry $60 billion to its name — Bill Gates is more worth more than the FDIC [78 billion] — that the FDIC is going to ensure every Americans bank account $100,000 with that tiny, tiny amount of money. Right. So we started going down that road. And of course what happens when you devalue the currency, what happens when all this starts to collapse is the wise and prudent person understands that there’s a massive shift of wealth coming. That massive shift of wealth, the greatest shift of wealth since the fall of the Roman Empire is coming and it’s coming within the next decade. Possibly within the next few years. And that is a shift away from fiat value investments toward intrinsic value investments. Fiat value investments are representations of wealth that are not wealth in and of themselves.
For example: cash in the bank. Or certificates of deposit or mutual funds that invest it on a broad base of various stocks in the bloated stock market that’s about to crash. Bonds, well there’s a fools debt if ever there was one. Bonds guaranteed to pay you less than interest every year then the rate of inflation. Those are fiat investments; those are going the way of the Dodo Bird. And intrinsic value investments, those are where the smart person is moving their money. They’re liquidating the stock and bond portfolio out of their 401(k), and they’re putting their money into real estate that is cash flow. I’m not talking about high risk speculative real estate, I’m talking about buying average single-family homes, and if you’re wealthy enough, paying cash for them. No mortgage, and you’ve got a constant rent flow. And the economy can go straight to hell and you’ve still got a rent flow from those houses you own. So real estate is an intrinsic value investment. What’s another example of an intrinsic value investment? Silver and gold. Silver and gold went from very low to very high, but they’re still fairly low when you look at where they are. Silver is going to go from $20 an ounce, to several hundred dollars an ounce. Gold is going to go from $1250 an ounce to probably $10,000 or $20,000 an ounce. Now don’t get too excited, these will be devalued dollars, but still. That stuff’s really good. Well, platinum and palladium too.
What’s another example of where I should be putting my money? Art and antiquities. In addition to real estate and silver and gold — art and antiquities. Now I don’t know a lot about art; art kind of scares me. A lot of the art is ugly to me, you know – I can’t fathom why people pay the amounts of money they pay for these ugly old paintings and some of them aren’t even that old.
But antiquities is a different matter. When you are looking at antiquities and you say I want to diversify my portfolio, and I see the coming economic collapse, I know the dollar is going to go down to nothing, and it’s no longer going to be the reserved standard for the world. I can’t afford to buy a bunch of houses for cash because I’m not a multimillionaire. What can I do? Well, you can buy silver and gold. But you can diversify beyond that. You should put everything you got to silver and gold. What happens if the government declares like they did just a few decades ago that it’s illegal for citizens to own gold? It’s illegal except for your wedding ring, and various other abstractions? Will they do that? I’d like to think probably not. But what if they do? You better not have all your eggs in one basket.
When you look to diversify into antiquities, what are the different types of antiquities that I could invest in? Well, you have antique furniture, and stuff like that, that takes up a lot of space. Maybe you don’t have room in your house for another dining room table. How about antique books? They’ve always been one of the most popular ways to invest in antiquity. Because their size is efficient. You can by a $5000 or a $500,000 antique book. Much like coins — very size efficient.
Well, when you look at antique books a little closer and you say, “Okay, thou has persuaded me, I need to put some of my portfolio into antique books.” What are my options?
There are two types of antique books. There are modern firsts; these are books that were printed almost a century ago usually. They’re in their original paper dust jackets, and some of them can fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars like the first edition of the Great Gatsby — a book that’s not even 100 years old. It can fetch six figures. What are my other options if I’m not really comfortable dropping the price of the house into a book that’s not even 80 years old and in a paper dust jacket? That just doesn’t settle well with me. Well, how about antiquarian books. That’s the other kind other than modern firsts. These are books that are multiple centuries years old. Their value was not based on the originality of their binding because they’re almost never in their original binding because their original binding was leather and that decomposes. Their value is based on the completeness and condition of the text block, the pages. And it’s okay if it’s been rebound three or four times in a nice leather binding, that’s not an issue.
Really antique books, books that are 300, 400, 500 years old okay, that sounds interesting, let’s put some money into that. What are my options? Well the most popular thing printed has always been the Bible. You could buy antiquarian books on science and math. You could buy Sir Isaac Newton’s book on calculus and that type of thing. He also did some Biblical commentary, Sir Isaac Newton. But the Bible has always been the most popular book. It’s always been the best seller. Especially in English speaking world, but even globally. So antique Bibles and antiquarian Bibles seems a logical place to diversify some of your portfolio.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. But that’s a good choice. And so since the fall of the economy in 2008 what we’ve seen as an interest among the more affluent investor in coming to us and saying, “I’m interested in Bibles that are from the 1500s and the 1600s, better price over $50,000.” And so we’ve been selling a lot of that. But we also have more of your every day people that say “I can’t afford that, but what I can afford is a Bible that cost about as much as a top-of-the-line flat screen television. I can drop maybe $4000 or $5000 or $6000, or $7000.” And we got some great choices in there. You can get King James from the early 1600s starting about $5000 or $6000.”
RGH: Have you been accused of profiting from religion?
Do you pay your pastor? Does your pastor have children that he needs to feed? Does he have a mortgage? Does he want to send those kids to college? Does he have food? Doesn’t your pastor profit from the Word of God? But furthermore, let’s really strike to the point. There are thousands of people, many of them which are good Christian people, who work for Thomas Nelson, Brogdon Holman, Zondervan — all the major Bible publishers who profit from printing and selling you copies of the Bible. Should all those people just leave their jobs and go work as steel pipe sitters and dentists?
I mean what are you really saying? How is it wrong to profit from selling copies of the Bible? Do you think that in all cases the Bible should be given away freely? Who’s going to paper the paper? Who’s going to pay for the leather? Who’s going to pay for the printing? Who’s going to pay for the warehousing? Who’s going to pay for the shipping and the distribution?
Now having said that, in my case, it takes an additional layer of stupidity to level that against us because we do not sell just Bibles like your local Christian bookstore. We are rare and antique dealers. And by working diligently as we do, we preserve God’s Word to go into the market and put together those fragments to make a complete ancient Bible. Or to simply acquire ancient Bibles that are already complete.
But nine times out of ten have not been cared for. They’re in dilapidated condition, the bindings are falling off, the pages are falling out, and we take those precious ancient copies of God’s Word that have stood as a testament of His Word for centuries, and we restore them, gently and reverently. We make sure that the pages get professionally tipped back in and sewn back in. We, when necessary deacidify the pages. We wrap them a new leather binding that are beautiful, ornately stamped, and in many cases put them in an additional protective bounding clamshell case. So the first thing we do is we take them in and we make them whole, we restore them and make them — put them in bindings that are worthy of what they are.
And after we’ve done that, we go the additional step of making sure that this time, this time around, that copy of the Word of God — not all cases, but most cases was neglected when we got it — that it gets into the hands of someone who will treasure it, love it, keep it as a family heirloom and leave it to their children in most cases. How do we ensure that? By selling it for what it’s worth. If we were giving these things away,or selling them for $50, they’d go right back down to the same fate that they had before. Which is neglect. But when you realize that, you know, for example – a 1616 printing of the King James Bible, just five years after the 1611 first addition, is worth $20,000 or $30,000. Or a 1611 is worth a couple hundred thousand dollars. And of course some of the others 1620s and 30s and 40s might be worth $4 or $5,000. When you sell them at those appropriate price points, you’re ensuring they’re going people who value them, who are willing to pay that money for them. And you’re enjoying that they’re going to be preserved for many generations to come.
As a final note, I would add that when we do sell these ancient printings of God’s Word, we always sell them at dramatically below their third-party appraisal value. So nobody here is being ripped off. Most of the Bibles that we sell our a significant fraction of their appraisal value. And the way that we are able to do that and still make a profit is we don’t buy a Bible unless we can get a really good deal on it. And a lot of our Bibles again, we have to assemble them from multiple incomplete fragments. So we’re able to sell it very very low prices and make a profit based on volume. That’s how we’ve stayed afloat. We’re not just the largest dealer of rare Bibles in the world. We sell more Bibles than the aggregate total of all other rare book dealers in the world combined. And so that’s how we stay afloat. It’s not on making a killing on the sale of this one item or that one item, it’s on making a modest profit, but selling millions of dollars worth at a modest profit, so that it adds up at the end of the year.
RGH: Do you restore Bibles?
We actually do not personally do the restoration at all. We oversee it. When we get the Bibles in and they need restoration, we hand them off to a local book restorer, book binder who is near us in the Phoenix, Arizona area. And they handle our restoration for us. It is a family that used to be the book restorers for the Yale University rare book room. They moved out to Phoenix, and now we are one of their customers — one of their larger customers. They do book restorations for a variety clients, including us.
We don’t restore for people. If someone has an ancient Bible and they’re like, “Hey, could you help me restore my ancient Bible, it needs to be rebound.” I simply give them the contact information for our book binders and book restores and say, “These are the people that we use, they will do a good job for you. Their prices are reasonable, here’s their email address, here’s their phone number.” We’re not in the business of profiting by restoring other people’s Bibles for them. We restore what we acquire, and then we sell it.