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Digest

Catch 32

A Former ABA President Sold 32 Rare Books. Pity They Weren’t His to Sell.
By Jeremy B. Dibbell

If you were a British multimillionaire collector looking for someone to appraise your library, who better than a past president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, right? Well, maybe not if that past president is David Slade. Slade is spending the next two years in jail after pleading guilty to the theft of rare books from the library he had been hired to catalog and appraise.

‘It was debt, not greed, which motivated you.’

Slade, 59, of Horfield, England, served as the ABA’s president in 1995–96, after which, the current president reports, “he failed to renew his subscription to the Association and his membership lapsed a year or two later.” Alan Shelley recalls Slade as “a good bookseller and until his departure from the ABA some 10 years ago, a loyal and effective member of our association. At that time all we knew was that his business as a sole trader following the closure of George's in Bristol [where Slade had been employed as a manager] had not been successful.” Since that time, Slade operated on the margins of the British rare book trade, and apparently some years ago he crossed the line that separates honest men from thieves.

Beginning in 2001, Slade was hired by financier Sir Evelyn de Rothschild to catalog the books in Rothschild’s country estate, Ascott House, near Wing in Buckinghamshire. Between 2001 and 2005, Slade visited the house up to three times a week, and during those visits he stole at least 32 rare books. Drawing on contacts he had groomed over a long career in bookselling, Slade consigned the books for sale at Dominic Winter Book Auctions in Gloucestershire, where they were put up between 2003 and 2007.

Among the titles sold were a signed first edition of T. E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom (which realized £22,000) and Louis Dupre's 1825 Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople, (£33,000). Others of the stolen books were found in Slade’s home, and in passing sentence Judge Christopher Tyrer ordered all the recovered books, as well as those sold at auction, to be returned to Rothschild.

Slade’s thefts were discovered during an audit of the Rothschild collection in early 2008, undertaken by Christie’s after Slade’s cataloging project had taken much longer than anticipated. His house was searched by police in April 2008 and along with some books known to be from the Rothschild collection, invoices for those sold at auction were found. Slade’s thefts amounted to approximately £230,000 total.

Reading the writing on the wall, Slade entered a guilty plea in relation to the thefts, his lawyers claiming that debt problems led him to steal the books. In a sentencing hearing on 4 February, Judge Tyrer told Slade, “You indulged in a significant plundering of Sir Evelyn's book collection over a long period of time, and your actions were in flagrant breach of the employment you were there to undertake. It was debt, not greed, which motivated you.” Prosecutor Robert Spencer-Bernard said the thefts represented “a gross breach of trust.”

Alan Shelley released a statement condemning Slade’s actions in strong terms: “The ABA is shocked to learn of David Slade's conviction and imprisonment for book theft…. The scale of his activities, and the appalling breach of the trust placed in him, render this a very serious offence, and while we are deeply sorry to see a former member in such a situation, we unhesitatingly deplore his crimes. Theft of books, whether from public or private collections, or indeed from members of the trade, is a very serious matter, and all honest booksellers are anxious to be given full particulars of any missing items or suspicious transactions without delay. The only way we can eradicate the trafficking of stolen books is by working closely with librarians, collectors, auctioneers and our fellow booksellers; the one positive aspect of such lamentable cases is that they do suggest that the problem of book theft is being taken seriously at last.”

In an email to the author, Shelley added that Slade’s case “highlights the ever present need for dialogue and action between booksellers, libraries, and collectors. Later this year I shall be addressing the Conference of Rare Book Librarians in Cambridge, where this theme will be uppermost in my words.”

This need for dialogue between those groups concerned with book thefts (and I would add the media to the mix as well) is an extremely important point, and is something we all must work harder to make a reality rather than a pipe dream. If auction houses and collectors took more care to check provenance and report suspicious items; if libraries and collectors were more forthcoming about thefts and committed themselves to pursuing and bringing to justice those responsible; if the media gave cases like this more attention and in-depth reporting…if all those things, the David Slades of the world would have a harder time getting away with their crimes for years on end before they are caught and brought to justice, and those who continue to go unnoticed would no longer be able to lurk in the shadows.

Click here for photos of Slade and news stories about his sentencing.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesJeremy Dibbell, an assistant reference librarian at the Massachusetts Historical Society in Boston, blogs about books.