A recent New York Times story about a freshman at Drew University caught my attention. He allegedly stole autographed letters from the university library and then sold several of them:
Mr. Scott pilfered the letters while working part time at the university archives, the prosecutors said. He sold some of them for thousands of dollars, and left others sitting in a dresser drawer, where F.B.I. agents found them after executing a search warrant of his dorm room on Saturday.
Those silly freshmen — always leaving the evidence in their dorm rooms.
Stories of stolen books and documents, as well as forgeries or fakes, are a fascinating subgenre of the history of bookselling. While Mr. Scott might never have a book written about his truncated crime spree, certain others in the world of books and maps have risen to dubious heights as thieves and forgers and have inspired some very good books.
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much is the story of John Gilkey, a prolific thief of rare books who kept the books he stole rather than selling them. A financial fraud as well as a self-indulgent lover of fine volumes, he spent 18 months in San Quentin prison. While some of the books he stole were recovered, others are still missing. An excellent account from the perspective of the rare book industry was written by Ken Sanders, the former security lead for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America.
Ego, money, and murder figure in the story of Mark Hofmann. Raised as a Mormon in Salt Lake City, he became one of the world's most accomplished forgers. Specializing in documents pertaining to the Mormon Church, he created documents in his basement and sold many directly to the Church. Robert Lindsey's book about Hofmann and his crimes, A Gathering of Saints begins with the discovery of a forged Emily Dickenson letter and ends in murder. Hofmann is currently serving a life sentence at the Utah State Prison.
Gilbert Bland was a very successful map dealer. His story, told in The Island of Lost Maps, is a tale of thievery on a grand scale. He used fake credentials to gain access to some of the most important rare book and map collections in the country, such as Baltimore's Peabody Library and the Regenstein Library in Chicago. He stole from special collections rooms that had been designed specifically with security in mind. He stole maps under the watchful eyes of librarians.
Bland sliced maps out of their book bindings with a razor blade, as did E. Forbes Smiley, a map dealer and convicted thief who has 97 map thefts to his name.
According to an accounting released by the federal prosecutor, Mr. Smiley acknowledged taking 34 maps from the Boston Public Library, 32 from the New York Public Library, 11 from Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, 9 from Beinecke Library at Yale, 8 from Houghton Library at Harvard, 2 from the Newberry Library in Chicago and 1 from the British Library.
Sentenced to three and a half years in prison, he was released on January 15, 2010.
Faked and stolen goods have been a part of the book trade forever. The Shakespeare fakes of William Henry Ireland appeared in 1795, Hitler's diaries were published by the West German news magazine Stern in 1983, and the fake diary of Jack the Ripper made it to press in 1993. Thefts from libraries continue even as rules restricting access to collections are made more and more stringent. And in 2009 the rare book dealer David Slade, past president of the Antiquarian Bookseller's Association, was sentenced to prison for the theft of multiple rare books from the Rothschild family.
Our own Library of Congress has had its collections plundered. In 1998 James Gilreath was sentenced for stealing rare books from the Library; he was caught when he tried to sell several to a rare book dealer in Boston. But rare books are hard to fence and the thieves are often caught when they try to turn their take into hard cash. It is perhaps a sign of the times that the latest notable theft at the Library of Congress had nothing at all to do with books.
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Kirsten Berg has worked as a used book buyer for Powell's for more than 10 years. She is experienced with technical and general reading material, and enjoys working with out-of-print and rare material the most.
Books mentioned in this post