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The difficulty of insider book theft

By Travis McDade

On Sunday, the New York Times reported on the wholesale looting of the prestigious Girolamini Library in Naples, Italy, by its director, Marino Massimo de Caro. He seems to have treated the place as his own personal collection, stealing and selling hundreds — maybe thousands — of rare and antiquarian books during his 11 month tenure. This has provoked the normal amount of head-shaking and hand-wringing. But what is most striking — aside from the embarrassing appointment of the unqualified de Caro to the job in the first place — is how terrible a thief he was.

For an insider, stealing rare books, maps and documents is easy. It takes no talent and very little planning. But turning those stolen items into cash while also staying out of jail requires skill, and a great deal of effort. De Caro, like many insiders before him, seems not to have properly thought this through.

The first step in the successful insider heist is to identify items unlikely to be either missed by the institution or recognized by buyers as stolen. For the same reason that stealing the Mona Lisa is a bad idea, taking the most famous or in-demand items in a library or archive is ill-advised. They’ll be likely recognized as missing and, in any event, will raise suspicions in anyone knowledgeable enough to pay full price for them.

Witness Rebecca Streeter-Chen, curator at the Rockland County Historical Society, who stole the jewel in her institution’s crown — a $60,000 Tanner Atlas. It was quickly recognized as missing, the requisite warnings sent out and Streeter-Chen clapped in chrome mere hours after she offered it for sale to a Philadelphia antiquarian map dealer. On the other hand, Daniel Lorello, archivist at the New York State Library, had a long career stealing and selling historical documents primarily because he focused on low-value items of the sort he referred to as “shit.” He assumed these things would be neither missed nor recognized when put up for sale — and he was right about that. But he eventually went up-market and was caught.

The more theoretical value an item has (think Shakespeare, Gutenberg, Caxton, Audubon, etc.) the less actual value it has when stolen.

The second step is a careful scrubbing of the catalogue record. This is important for two reasons. First, by getting rid of an item’s catalogue entry, it is more difficult to detect that it has been stolen. Not only will patrons be unable to request an item for which no record exists — thereby postponing discovery — but even if the item is known to be affiliated with the institution, it is difficult to prove in a court of law without an actual record. Unfortunately for would-be thieves, whose track-covering often ends with destroying a catalogue entry, item records sometimes show up in the darndest places.

Skeet Willingham, head of Special Collections at the University of Georgia, did a fairly comprehensive job of destroying evidence of his serial thefts. This included, he thought, any indication at all that UGA owned an eight-volume set of floral prints by 19th century artist Pierre-Joseph Redoute. Unbeknownst to him, a photocopy of the library’s catalog card had been made for, and stored at, the university’s science library as a cross-reference. Lester Weber, Director of Archives at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia, did a similar job of destroying the records of the items he stole. That is, he missed some. In one case, a collection he pilfered had been, before he arrived at the museum, on loan. That meant a separate set of records he neither knew about nor had access to.

But for would-be thieves it is even worse than that. The record of every potential stolen item needs to not only be purged from the system — and any various card-catalog hard copies tracked down and destroyed — but it must never have been consulted by a researcher or author and made its way, via citation, into a book or article. David Breithaupt, night supervisor at Kenyon College’s Olin Library, was outed as a thief when he tried to sell on eBay a Flannery O’Connor letter that appears in the reference book American Literary Manuscripts. A savvy Georgia librarian made the connection.

The third step, finding a market, might be trickiest of all. While eBay seems to have gone a long way toward mitigating this problem, it has proven a double-edged sword. Too many knowledgeable collectors or nosy librarians have spotted something amiss, and placed a phone call. So the savvy thief, especially with big ticket items, eschews the auction site. Not that approaching dealers and auction houses is less risky. They do research, too, before handling expensive items, a lesson Edward Renehan, director of the Theodore Roosevelt Association, found out when he tried to sell important presidential letters he’d stolen.

So a discreet, trustworthy fence is essential. And while many antiquarian booksellers have served this role — witting or unwitting — over the years, many more have proven to be valuable allies in the fight against library and archive theft. If staying out of jail is the goal, random queries to members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America is a bad idea. Unless an insider thief is very lucky, it will take years to cultivate the sorts of contacts needed to safely sell stolen material without risking jail.

In short, getting away with it has never been more difficult. More importantly, the criminal penalties are as harsh and consistently imposed as they’ve ever been. So, to the de Caro’s of the world, who find themselves in possession of keys to the vault, I say this: Congratulations, you’ve cleared the shortest hurdle. If you want to stay out of jail, you have years of work ahead of you, and many more yet of looking over your shoulder.

Travis McDade is Curator of Law Rare Books at the University of Illinois College of Law. He is the author of The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman and a book on a Depression-era book theft ring operating out of Manhattan forthcoming from Oxford University Press in spring 2013. He teaches a class called “Rare Books, Crime & Punishment.” Read his previous blog post: “Barry Landau and the grim decade of archives theft.”

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Image credits: Headline image via spxChrome, iStockphoto. Stamp of the Biblioteca dei Girolamini via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Christine Zambrano

    Excellent article. What seemed at first like a school for scoundrels should be an effective deterrent for insiders tempted to exploit their stewardship.

  2. Travis McDade

    Ms. Zambrano,

    Thanks for the nice words. I do hope this discourages those few that would even consider it.



  3. David Bertao

    I have almost finished reading Thieves of Book Row. It is really interesting. So I am looking for a copy of your previous book, The Book Thief. I probably will have to purchased a used copy. Your account of book thefts as described in your new book seemed almost an exaqgeration until I remembered the public library in a college town where I lived forty years ago. Most of the listings in their card catalog could not be found on the shelves, if they were in any way current, first edition, that sort of thing. The librarian told me they were “missing.” Stolen, in other words. Now they have installed a turnstile and probably have an electronic device inside to set off an alarm.

  4. Rus

    Authors with whom I have conversed or e-mailed have often expressed their wonder at how their work may or may not have been received, appreciated, or been of benefit to readers. Other than published reviews and a check from the publisher, they receive litle feedback.

    Please know that I found Thieves of Book Row (ToBR) fascinating. I could not put it down. Your detailed look into depression-years book theft and dealer complicity is enlightening and delightful.

    Nick Basbanes published several essays about individual book thieves in his A Gentle Madness, and other authors have written about book thieves operating alone (The Man Who Loved Books Too Much) but before ToBR I was convinced that book thieves operated solo.

    ToBR has also sent me to some good reading. You refer to several early biblio-mystery titles. I have just finished The Haunted Bookshop and am already deep into Fast Company, both of which you mentioned in ToBR.

    Have also subcsribed to your blog today, which I found through a reference in Fine Books and Collections magazine. Will be shopping for True Crimes of Daniel Speigelman next.

    Thanks for hours of enjoyable reading, for expanding my knowledge and enriching my life.

  5. Marino Massimo De Caro

    Dear prof. McDade I need to contact you ASAP.
    Thanks. Regards.
    Marino Massimo De Caro

  6. […] article he wrote for the Oxford University Press blog called “The Difficulty of Insider Book Theft” was featured on The Atlantic’s The Week’s Best Pop Culture Writing and The New Yorker’s […]

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