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Crimes Against Humanities

Ex-Libri

Libri’s tactics eventually caught up to him, as his fellow collectors and others began to grow suspicious of how he could possibly have obtained such a massive and spectacular collection on his salary. The first accusation against Libri was leveled in 1842 by a collecting rival, and in 1844, Libri was observed by a Florentine librarian removing leaves from rare books. He evaded punishment, but afterward, he tried to divest himself of the collection. Libri claimed that he attempted to donate the materials to the Biblioteca Magliabechiana in Florence, but continued tensions with the authorities there apparently derailed the deal. The Bibliothèque Royale (now the Bibliothèque nationale de France) was also supposedly a planned destination, but officials there claimed to have never received an offer from Libri. He then attempted to sell the books and manuscripts to the British Museum, who were interested in the manuscripts and sent Keeper of Manuscripts Sir Frederic Madden to examine Libri’s library. The allegations against Libri notwithstanding, Madden and Libri ally Anthony Panizzi pushed for the purchase, but the Museum didn’t raise the funds.

In November 1846, Libri managed a deal with the Earl of Ashburnham, who purchased the manuscripts for £8,000 (Libri later demanded first choice of anything Ashburnham decided to sell, which the earl brushed off). The manuscripts disposed of, Libri began to auction off the printed books, which sold well. But the accusations of nefarious practices continued to accumulate, and prosecutors drew up a brief against Libri (in response to which Libri offered to “provide full information” about the charges and demanded that his accusers be prosecuted). But the 1848 revolution intervened, and Libri fled to England. The new French government published the brief against Libri, in response to which “a veritable battle of pamphlets began to be waged between bibliophiles and librarians” on both sides of the Channel, both supporters and opponents of Libri taking to the printed page to make their case.

The French government tried Libri in absentia, charging him with “having fraudulently withdrawn, at different times during the last ten years, various documents kept in public depots and consisting of printed books, autographs and manuscripts.” In June 1850 he was sentenced to ten years in prison with hard labor, but was safe from extradition in England (and eventually even managed to obtain some of the books confiscated by the government, which he immediately sold at auction in England). Libri and his allies spent the remainder of his life trying to clear his name, without success. He died in September 1869, having returned to Italy the year before.

Bibliothèque nationale administrator Léopold Delisle was finally able to provide concrete proof of the thefts in the late 1860s, but not until the death of the Earl of Ashburnham in 1878 was any action possible. The earl’s heir attempted to sell the Libri collection en bloc, but pieces of it ended up going to the British Museum and the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence. In 1887 the French and German governments agreed to cooperate and purchase many of the contested items, with the French finally getting their materials back in exchange for the famous Codex Manesse (long in French hands, it was given to the University of Heidelberg). The Bibliothèque nationale took control of the French documents, much to the dismay of the provincial libraries from which Libri had originally lifted them.

Some of the purloined items, including the 72 Descartes letters from the Institut de France, were not returned. The Institut has so far recovered just 45 of the letters, which include at least one known example still in a private collection. At least some of Libri’s wrongs remain unrighted, but Haverford’s recent action will perhaps provide an example for other institutions and collectors who may have stolen materials in their libraries.

His biographers end their detailed treatment of Libri on a bittersweet note: “Shameful as his exploits were, knowledge of the fact that the ‘Affaire Libri’ contributed to improvement of the state of libraries in France and throughout the world, would have given some comfort to the ashes of Guglielmo Libri, who had known full well that, when all is said and done, he had indeed been a thief.”

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