The Great Library Swindle: Stealing Rare Books

By Justine Hyde

In the lead-up to Melbourne’s Rare Book Week, Justine Hyde looks at the underground trade in rare books, investigating the dastardly book crimes of the past and present.

At first glance, libraries are not an obvious breeding ground for petty thieves and organised crime. But look below the surface and you will find gritty characters and shady deals that would put The Sopranos to shame.

Rare books such as first editions and original author manuscripts fetch ever-increasing record prices. They are highly valued and sought after by collectors and make an attractive bounty for poachers.

Public, university and private library collections have all been targets for pilfering. Alongside large-scale heists by organised gangs, library insiders have insidiously whittled away precious collections, while daring individual thieves have simply walked out of libraries with rare books stuffed in their jacket pockets.

Travis McDade’s latest book, Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It uncovers America’s worst library book theft ring. In Depression-era New York, a network of crooked booksellers and gangsters carried out a daring heist of rare books from the New York Public Library. The gang, led by ringleader and antiquarian bookseller Charles Romm, stole rare first editions by authors such as Melville, Poe and Hawthorn. Corrupt booksellers would peddle these treasures to collectors who were willing to overlook their dubious origins. G. William Bergquist, the library’s special investigator, busted the ring and the thieves were eventually caught, but some of the books were never recovered.

The Romm Gang’s spectacular caper, while notorious, is sadly not an isolated case.

Earlier this year, the library of London’s Lambeth Palace revealed that it was the scene of a major book crime dating back to the 1970s, which the library only recently discovered. A former library employee stole around 1400 publications and hid them in his attic. Among the precious books was an early Shakespeare edition. The theft was only uncovered when the library received a posthumous letter from the thief alerting them to his plundering of the collection.

In another recent case, a serial biblioklept, William Jacques, has twice been jailed for his crimes against British libraries. Over many years, Jacques removed rare books and pamphlets hidden in his jacket from the Royal Horticultural Society Library, British Library and Cambridge University Library.

McDade, who is the curator of rare law books at the University of Illinois (and a leading expert on crimes against rare books) says, ‘some of these guys have been known to travel around, stealing from hundreds of libraries and archives, for years and years’. McDade names Stephen Blumberg and James Shinn, who operated in the 1970s and 1980s, as the most infamous book thieves in the United States. ‘They managed to do serious damage to libraries,’ he says.

The damage to libraries goes beyond the loss of the historical and cultural value of the items themselves. McDade says ‘there is often a sense of personal violation for the people who work at institutions that have been victims’. He adds, ‘if the crime remains unsolved for any period of time, mistrust seeps into the relationships between coworkers. A major unsolved theft often creates a toxic work environment at the victim institution.’

McDade contends that stealing the books is the easy part of the crime. ‘This is not a fact that ordinarily occurs to the amateur thief,’ he says. Off-loading the goods is the more difficult part, with a thief risking capture every time he tries to sell stolen material. McDade gives an example of four college boys from Kentucky in the United States. ‘One of them took a tour of his college’s special collections, and was startled when the librarian told the group about the millions of dollars the books were worth. Visions of yachts and fast cars and Ocean’s Eleven swirling in his head, he and some friends set out on an ill-conceived, though somewhat successful, theft. By the time they decided that approaching Christie’s was their best chance at getting paid, their goose was cooked,’ he says.

Crimes against rare books are not limited to theft. Thieves will often damage rare books to remove identifying marks, seals and binding to make them easier to sell on the market and more difficult to trace their origins. Other culprits cut out maps and image plates, famous signatures and dedications to sell, leaving the source books damaged and library’s collection significantly devalued.

‘Libraries are an easy target,’ says Jo Ritale, collections services manager at the State Library of Victoria, ‘because we do make our collections accessible’. Ritale reassures that there hasn’t been the history of book theft in Australia that has occurred in the United Kingdom and United States. The State Library counts among its rare books a copy of Audubon’s Birds of America, one of only 120 copies remaining intact. A copy recently sold at a Sotheby’s auction in London for US $11.5 million. Other rarities include William Caxton’s Myrrour of the Worlde, as well as first editions of Galileo and Isaac Newton.

The State Library safeguards its collections against theft and damage through an electronic theft detection system and roving security staff and bag checks. Rare and heritage material can only be viewed in a secure room controlled by staff, with strict rules around use. The library stores rare and heritage material in a separate wing where access is limited to designated staff. Ritale says that the drawback of this approach is ‘the need for extra vigilance and security measures to protect rare collection material is in direct contrast with the library’s policy to make material accessible with as few barriers to that access as possible’. To account for all rare books and ensure that none have gone missing, the library does a regular audit of high value materials.

It can be embarrassing for a library to lose rare books that have been trusted to its care. ‘For a long time it was the norm for libraries to keep thefts quiet. Fortunately, this is changing,’ McDade says. By being up front about the loss of books, libraries have a greater chance of seeing them identified. Antiquarian booksellers, libraries and police cooperate to identify stolen books and have them returned. Kay Craddock, antiquarian bookseller and convener of Melbourne Rare Books Week, describes the steps that booksellers take. ‘We have a strict procedure when buying from private vendors, which includes photo ID and registration. This is mandatory and regularly checked by police.’ The Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers is part of the ILAB global stolen books network, which works with libraries and within the UNESCO Unidroit Convention on stolen or illegally exported cultural treasures. ‘The book trade has been responsible for helping to catch book thieves in the USA and Europe,’ says Craddock. ‘If we are concerned that a book bearing library marks is stolen, then we contact that library.’

The impact of the loss of rare books, archival sources or manuscript materials from libraries is that ‘the information they contained might be lost to humanity forever,’ says McDade. ‘The materials in libraries are the thing upon which our history and culture is built. When they disappear, there is no getting them back.’

Related posts