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The Peculiar Underworld of Rare-Book Thieves

January 22, 2014  |  8:50am
The Peculiar Underworld of Rare-Book Thieves

When officials finally caught on in 2012 to the looting of the Biblioteca Girolamini, a gorgeous rare-book library in Naples, Italy, entire walls of bookcases stood empty. Thousands of books vanished into the black market, including rare editions by the likes of Aristotle and Galileo. Some turned up with their library ID marks crudely hacked out. Most are still missing today.

Nearly as shocking was the barbarian behind it all: the library’s own director, Marino Massimo de Caro. A politically wired, self-taught book expert, De Caro and his cronies—allegedly including a lawyer and a priest—looted the library and destroyed its card catalogue to cover their tracks. De Caro even commissioned master forgeries of an ancient book by Galileo so he could swap them for the real thing at other libraries.

In the peculiar underworld of rare-book theft, De Caro joins a rogue’s gallery that features flamboyant eccentrics, disgruntled employees, corrupt academics—even a serial killer.

While the criminal personalities vary, according to the elite detectives who hunt book thieves, they all share something in common: base greed and a knack for gaining insider access to the cozy, exclusive world of rare-book collecting.

“It tends not to be your average burglar,” Bonnie Magness-Gardiner, manager of the FBI’s Art Theft Program, said in an interview with Paste. “You have to know something about what you’re stealing to do it profitably, and for the most part, [book theft] is driven by greed.”

The Art Theft Program is a team of FBI agents who track “cultural property crimes”—the theft of art and artifacts. Stolen paintings get most of the public limelight, while theft of rare books or manuscripts remains an obscure corner of cultural property crime. In part, that’s because it’s relatively unusual.

“The thefts are scarce in our business in comparison with other trading activities,” Gonzalo Fernández Pontes, the security chair at the Switzerland-based International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), said. In his own 22 years of operating a bookstore in Madrid, he said only twice did thieves “in a hurry to make some pocket money” try to sell him stolen books.

Pontes explained, however, that thefts can increase after highly publicized book sales, such as last November’s record-setting auction of a 1640 copy of the Bay Psalm Book for over $14 million.

And books can be relatively easy to steal. Unlike paintings or art objects, Magness-Gardiner said books are “vulnerable because these are items…a person can access and handle,” noting that the whole point of a library is to make books available for individual reading. “There is an element of trust in the [library] community,” she said—a trust that thieves often exploit.

A classic case is Anthony Melnikas, an Ohio State University art professor busted in 1995 for attempting to sell pages he had cut out of books in the Vatican Library. Melnikas was well-known at the library and a friend of its director.

“You can see how he used his personal connections and trust he established over a lifetime…to commit thefts,” Magness-Gardiner said.

When a book theft does occur, the lack of evidence could stump Sherlock Holmes. Even noticing the theft can take years. A stolen painting leaves an obvious blank spot on a wall, but a stolen book leaves an easily-filled gap on a bookshelf. Some thieves, like Melnikas, just cut out the valuable illustrations. And rare documents are often catalogued by the box, not individually.

“For archival material, the first clue we have it’s stolen is when it’s been advertised for sale,” Magness-Gardiner said.

Once the theft is noticed, books are still “special problems.” Unlike unique works of art, a book is usually one copy of many in an edition. Tracking down the one specific copy that was stolen is a forensic nightmare; ditto for trying to locate the owners of books found in thieves’ hoards. Factor in thieves who hack off identifying library marks, and Magness-Gardiner says the detective work is “extraordinarily difficult.”

An archaeologist by training, Magness-Gardiner is not an FBI agent herself. Instead, she advises agents on resources and authorities to help them track stolen artifacts. After all, it takes an expert to catch an expert.

Pinning down a suspect is also more challenging than one might think. The rare-book world’s knowledge and manners are elitist, but they can be learned by almost anyone.

chartnorth400.jpg “There’s no list of experts,” Magness-Gardiner said. “There are people who are self-taught…who are quite expert.”

All these challenges converged in the infamous case of thief Edward Forbes Smiley III. A well-respected map collector, Smiley ingratiated himself with major libraries by donating maps to their collections. At the very same time, he was hacking rare maps out of books in those and other libraries. After years of unnoticed theft, Smiley was nabbed in 2006 in Yale University’s rare-book library after a librarian noticed an X-Acto knife blade on the floor.

The FBI still has books and maps confiscated from Smiley whose owners remain unknown. Last summer, it issued an unusual public appeal for help and released photos of many items (including the photo above of a “Chart of the North Part of America by J. Thornton”).

Other Smiley items were returned only after intense detective work according to journalist Michael Blanding, whose book about the case, The Map Thief, is due out this year. Blanding told Paste that Smiley cooperated with the FBI.

“Even so, the recovery of the maps was a long, complex process involving forensic research, including matching paper stains, library stamps and even wormholes to identify which volumes maps were ripped from,” Blanding said.

Trusting the word of a cooperating thief only goes so far, and Smiley is suspected of many other thefts.

“We may never know the full extent of Smiley’s crimes or recover all the maps he stole,” Blanding said.

Online databases of stolen cultural property, including rare books, are used to catch thieves. But there are several different databases with varying contents, and none of them are a one-stop shop for the wary book-buyer.

Interpol, the France-based international police agency, runs one such database. London’s Scotland Yard runs another. The FBI’s National Stolen Art File is also a prominent database, but it only includes cases with U.S. federal jurisdiction and only lists truly unique books.

The best database may be stolen-book.org. Operated by the ILAB, it allows member booksellers to post descriptions and photos of stolen books in as little as 10 minutes, with an automatic email alert going to all members around the world. Books added in recent years include a 1589 Bible and first editions of everything from Winnie the Pooh to Naked Lunch.

The simple system works. One recent example: a couple used a forged £12,000 check to steal a first edition of the James Bond novel Casino Royale in London, then they tried to quickly sell it in New York City.

“They were completely unaware of how ILAB’s information email system works, and this led to their arrest,” ILAB Security Chair Pontes said.

But the ILAB’s system is only as good as its members. Among those charged in the Girolamini library looting conspiracy, three are auctioneers and booksellers who are ILAB affiliates.

“The Girolamini affair is very complex, and it will take years to have all the pieces of this jigsaw in their correct position,” Pontes said, noting the booksellers have yet to go to court. But he insists ethical integrity must be at the heart of the industry, or it will fail.

“We say that in our trade, ‘to build up a reputation takes the whole professional life, but you can lose it in half an hour,’” he said.

The FBI’s Magness-Gardiner believes increased awareness and skepticism from book-buyers would help.

“The more the rarity goes up, the deeper you want to go in checking,” she said. That means looking at databases, asking for paperwork on the book’s previous sales and checking the seller’s reputation in the community and the industry. But it all begins with a simple, easily-forgotten question.

“Ask the seller where the item came from,” Magness-Gardiner said. “I personally would not accept ‘I don’t know’ for an answer.”

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A Rogue’s Gallery of Book Thieves

Anders Burius, the former head of the National Library of Sweden’s manuscript department, committed suicide (and accidentally blew up his apartment) in 2004 after authorities realized he was stealing books from his own workplace. The FBI located and returned some of his bounty last year, but many books remain missing.

William Jacques, an oil-company accountant dubbed the “Tome Raider” by the British press, was jailed for stealing rare books by Newton, Thomas Paine and others from Cambridge University and other libraries in the 1990s. When he was released, he promptly stole books from the Royal Horticultural Society. Many books remain missing, and he is now banned from all U.K. libraries.

Raymond Scott, an eccentric British antiques dealer and con man, was imprisoned for attempting to sell a stolen, vandalized copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio in 2008. The First Folio , along with other rare books and documents, had been stolen from Durham University 10 years earlier. Scott showed up for trial in a limousine and committed suicide in prison in 2012.

Gary Evans, a violent jewel thief and serial killer, was also a self-taught antiques expert. Busted in 1994 for stealing a first edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds of America from a Vermont library, he got a reduced sentence in exchange for returning the book. He continued stealing antiques until police realized he was a murderer in 1998. Escaping a police van thanks to a handcuff key hidden deep in his nose, Evans killed himself by leaping off a highway bridge.




John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist, editor and critic who regularly contributes to Paste Magazine and Creative Loafing Atlanta. His work has appeared in such publications as the Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald and Details.

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