Book Theft, Redux

I see by the papers a recent article in the Financial Times of London on the general subject of book theft, the occasion for the piece being three cases that achieved “high profile” status in Europe by virtue of the materials stolen, and for the stature of the people who committed the crimes. Indeed, the perpetrators have been described by some officials as “gentleman thieves,” a description that could well apply to Edward Forbes Smiley III, the dapper American dealer whose theft of 97 maps valued at $3 million from various repositories earned him a sentence in 2006 of three and a half years in federal prison.

The most recent case in Europe involves a 60-year-old Iranian businessman, Farhad Hakimzadeh, who was sentenced to two years in prison in January for having removed pages from rare books in the British and Bodleian libraries over a seven-year period. He did this, it was later learned, to improve imperfect copies in his own collection--“augmenting” them is the bibliographical term--which he could then sell at better prices on the open market. One of the books he vandalized contained a 500-year-old map painted by Hans Holbein, an artist in the court of Henry VIII, and valued at 32,000 pounds.

The two earlier cases discussed in the article involve the thefts in France of Stanislas Gosse, a 30-year-old former naval officer whose particular passion was for illuminated manuscripts plundered from the library of a monastery in eastern France, and the five-year feeding frenzy of one William Jacques, also known as Mr. Santoro, David Fletcher, and to those who finally apprehended him on charges of making off with rare books from the London Library, Cambridge University Library, and British Library valued at 1 million pounds, as the “Tome Raider.”

The details of these cases are fascinating, and those interested in learning more should read the Financial Times piece. But what puzzles me the most, I have to say, is not the disclosure of the crimes--since book theft has been with us for centuries--but for the incredulity of it all--as if such crimes are a recent phenomenon, and that anyone should be shocked that the perpetrators turn out to be “respectable” persons.

Let me note that there is a very good reason for why it is pretty difficult to go into the reading rooms of special collections libraries in much of the world these days. Bags and coats must be left outside, surveillance cameras are operating, and people are being watched. You can credit a good deal of that to the lessons learned from the twenty-year campaign of book theft undertaken by Stephen Carrie Blumberg, who I wrote about at length in “A Gentle Madness,” and who we can safely say was the quintessential book thief of the twentieth century. His toll over a twenty-year spree: 23,600 books stolen from 268 libraries in forty-five states, two Canadian provinces, and the District of Columbia, booty conservatively valued at the time of his arrest in 1990 at $20 million. Part of Blumberg’s MO, it should be noted--one way he gained the trust of libraries--was to masquerade as a visiting scholar.

I shall remember always the words of W. Dennis Aiken, the FBI special agent who supervised the investigation of the case:

“My conviction is that Steve Blumberg was going to get this stuff no matter what he had to do. He did nighttime burglaries. He defeated sophisticated alarm systems. He threw books out windows. He knew what was going on in the life of libraries, and he picked their weakest moments. I suppose if these people were willing to dig a fifty-foot hole in the ground and encase everything in concrete, he might not have been able to get in, but I wouldn’t bet on that either. This is a very clever man. Book theft was his life.”

Cautionary words if ever there were any.

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