Time has weathered its pages to sepia, but the gold letters on the cover of the hardback Bible still shine when the light hits just so. On the first page, in cursive, an inscription reads, “Best Wishes, Martin Luther King Jr.”
And it lives in the last place you might expect to find something so dear: encased in a plexiglass box on a display shelf at 1st United Pawn & Loan in South Philadelphia.
The MLK Bible sits next to vintage American banknotes and a piece of rusty metal that’s said to be from the Titanic. A photo of King leaning over a podium has been placed inside the case with the Bible.
The shop’s co-owner, Peter M. Del Borrello III, said he bought the Bible on eBay in January last year for $2,500. But he’s not interested in selling it.
“When people come into our store, we try to educate them on historical items that they may not have seen before,” Del Borrello, 37, said as he delicately turned the worn, yet sturdy pages of the bible. “We’re just keepers until we pass it onto the next generation.”
Del Borrello had King’s signature verified through Professional Sports Authenticator (PSA), a “very legitimate” company for certifying autographs, according to Darren Winston, head of books and manuscripts at Freeman’s, the venerable Philadelphia auction house.
Before the Bible made its way to Philadelphia, it was in Las Vegas, where the eBay store Humanvise purchased it at an estate sale, a Humanvise representative said. Humanvise has other novelty items for sale, such as photographs autographed by Bill Clinton, Bo Diddley, Richard Pryor, and Clint Eastwood.
In December, a different Bible signed by King sold for $3,125 by Nate D. Sanders Auctions, Fine Autographs & Memorabilia in Los Angeles. The inscription also reads “Best Wishes, Martin Luther King Jr.”
Winston said it’s likely that the Philadelphia Bible is worth around the same amount. “If you brought me that book, I would use this price as a guide.”
Another Bible said to be signed by King surfaced in 2016 at another pawn shop, in Fresno, Calif. Like Del Borrello, the Fresno shop’s owner doesn’t plan to sell the Bible. The shop’s showroom manager confirmed they still have the Bible in their collection, but it’s no longer on display.
An unsigned Bible that belonged to King himself (and was used by Barack Obama for the swearing in at his second presidential inauguration) was involved, along with his Nobel Peace Prize, in a 2016 legal dispute between King’s children.
Alveda King, King’s niece, said many of the civil rights leader’s public appearances were at churches, revivals, and other religious gatherings, which could be where he signed Bibles. “I give people Bibles all the time myself,” she said. “I buy Bibles for the purpose of giving them to people.”
She said that she’s been approached many times for autographs on her books and albums. But since the advent of social media, she opts for a selfie instead.
Alveda King said she’s “not disappointed at all” that the Philadelphia Bible is in a pawn shop instead of a museum or cultural institution. “Anywhere there’s a Bible, there’s light and there’s truth,” she said.
1st United Pawn & Loan has been at the corner of Washington and Broad since Del Borrello’s father and grandfather opened in 1977. Del Borrello and his younger brother, Chris, took ownership of the shop in 2005. They have two other pawnshops, in West Berlin, N.J., and Claymont, Del.
Del Borrello said that they’re always on the hunt for historical memorabilia and also own checks signed by former U.S. presidents, including George Washington, John F. Kennedy, and John Adams. He periodically rotates items from his collection on the display shelf in the Philadelphia shop.
The lure of the History channel’s Pawn Stars, Del Borrello said, is that viewers are able to learn about rare items. “We wanted to bring some of that to Philadelphia.”