More than one blown cover
September 2, 2018 11:47 AM   Subscribe

"No major American crime requires as much travelling as that of stealing rare books from libraries." Rare book-theft expert and author Travis McDade "can name dozens of famous and lesser-known book thieves but here are his top five."

Travis McDade: The difficulty of insider book theft

John Jay College: Book'em: Symposium - Inside Theft from Libraries & Archives
Jennifer Comins, Archivist for the Carnegie Collections in Rare Books and Manuscripts Library at Columbia University; Travis McDade, Curator of Law Rare Books and Associate Professor of Library Services, University of Illinois College of Law; Larry Sullivan, Associate Dean and Chief Librarian at John Jay College of Criminal Justice; and Jeanne Willoz-Egnor, Director of Special Collections Management, Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia, discuss insider theft from libraries and archives at a symposium held at John Jay College on May 7, 2014.
Washington State University Library: The Blumberg Rare Books Thefts
Book thief Stephen Blumberg stole over 18,000 rare books from hundreds of libraries before being caught in 1988 after an attempted theft from Washington State University Libraries' Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections (MASC). Brief clips are included from investigating officer Steven Huntsberry, and from where the books were being stored by the FBI prior to their return. This was digitized from 16mm film held at WSU MASC.
The Girolamini Library thefts:

At Root of Italy Library’s Plunder, a Tale of Entrenched Practices

The looting of a 16th Century library

Rare book theft, previously on Metafilter:

“the most fascinating, best, smartest crook I ever encountered”: The Rare-Book Thief Who Looted College Libraries in the ’80s

The dark side of the moon

Previously on FanFare:

American Animals (2018): Based on a true story, four bright and well-off college students in Kentucky plot to steal some rare books from their university's Special Collections Library in a misguided quest for personal glory.

Of Rich Kids and Rare Book Theft: American Animals and the Various “Nonfictions” of a True Crime
posted by mandolin conspiracy (35 comments total) 68 users marked this as a favorite
 
2018 is really the year that brings home to me what a colossal mistake I made in not dedicating myself to a life of crime.
posted by poffin boffin at 12:15 PM on September 2, 2018 [46 favorites]


If Arkham University had made its rare text collection accessible to qualified scholars such as myself, I would not have *needed* to abscond with their LrwoirNURnLdn copy of the FbrubhpIbw777 cannibalistic tribes that IURH*&WEGT)*3lhjbwlyg8GY8gvkfa& dimensional windowless solids Iä! Iä! Fhtagn!
posted by kyrademon at 12:21 PM on September 2, 2018 [21 favorites]


We just watched American Animals last night. It is a little slow over the first hour as they are planning the theft but it picks up. If I had paid $11 x 2 to see it in a theatre I'd probably be disappointed, but as a $5 streaming rental it's worth it.
posted by COD at 12:39 PM on September 2, 2018


Great post, but I feel like it was a missed opportunity by MovableBookLady tbh.
posted by maupuia at 12:46 PM on September 2, 2018 [17 favorites]


*sorry* [hangs head]
posted by MovableBookLady at 1:02 PM on September 2, 2018 [29 favorites]


The third link mentions the Pittsburgh Carnegie Library thefts by a librarian and the owner of Caliban Books but here's more of the story from the NY Times. Somehow they managed to smuggle millions of dollars of books out and sell them for decades before anyone noticed. I'm livid over it and also amazed; I've bought books from Caliban for years and the owner is a friend of friends and no one can believe that he could have done this.
posted by octothorpe at 1:25 PM on September 2, 2018 [9 favorites]


*sorry* [hangs head]

More like RemovableBookLady amirite?

From octothorpe's linke:

A 1787 first-edition book signed by Thomas Jefferson.

A rare copy of “The Journal of Major George Washington.”

A version of Isaac Newton’s “Principia,” among the most influential books in science, said to be worth $900,000.

The archivist who oversaw a special collection of rare books at the central library in Pittsburgh walked out of the building with these and other items — sometimes in plain sight — and sold them to a local bookstore owner, the authorities said, in a scheme that lasted nearly 20 years.


One of the things McDade points out is that the thieves who, uh, "enjoy" long-term success are the ones who don't go for anything too prominent or insanely sought-after:

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.

posted by mandolin conspiracy at 1:32 PM on September 2, 2018 [2 favorites]


"Books seem to me to be pestilent things, and infect all that trade in them...with something very perverse and brutal. Printers binder, sellers , and others that make a trade and gain out of them have universally so odd a turn and corruption of mind that they have a way of dealing peculiar to themselves, and not conformed to the good of society and that general fairness which cements mankind.”

John Locke
posted by BWA at 1:58 PM on September 2, 2018 [9 favorites]


For a more light-hearted look, comic book Bookhunter (available in full for free online) tells the story of a detective hunting down book theives in a highly-fictionalised (but technically and procedurally sound) alternate universe crime drama. As a staff member at an academic library with particularly-unique/valuable collections, it tickled me.

(If the art style looks familiar then you probably previously read Fleep, by the same author.)
posted by avapoet at 2:21 PM on September 2, 2018 [7 favorites]


I love how offended McDade is by bad book theft practices.
As a human it irritates me. As a special collections librarian it terrifies me. But as a person who studies rare book crime it disappoints me; it’s just such a bad way to steal books.
posted by jeather at 2:32 PM on September 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


Fabulous link. Thank you so much!
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 3:22 PM on September 2, 2018


I love how offended McDade is by bad book theft practices.

One wants one’s enemies to be competent, not the usual batch of idiotic vandals, getting the least benefit from the most damage.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:25 PM on September 2, 2018 [8 favorites]


Oh, I love this stuff, thank you! Talk of rare and desirable books always makes me want to read early Umberto Eco.
posted by turbid dahlia at 3:44 PM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


This also puts me in the mind to watch The Ninth Gate again...
posted by darkstar at 4:30 PM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


> I love how offended McDade is by bad book theft practices.

One wants one’s enemies to be competent, not the usual batch of idiotic vandals, getting the least benefit from the most damage.
Oh definitely.

Years ago I was the victim of a more commonplace sort of crime (albeit an atypically vicious one..) I had the misfortune to encounter three men who abducted me at gunpoint, robbed me, locked me in the trunk of my car, and then went joyriding in the stolen car for several hours before ultimately abandoning the car (with me still locked in the trunk) by the side of the freeway. After I had processed the initial shock of the events one of the secondary elements that bothered me the most was just how senseless the act had been -- that strangers would risk killing me, commit multiple violent felonies, and spend hours engaged in an activity when, based on the paltry sum of money I had at the time, they could collectively netted more money by working closing shift at an area fast food restaurant. The disproportionality of the harm they were willing to inflict for meager benefit to themselves offended me deeply, and still does, as much or more than the crime itself.

And somehow, in a world where people do truly heinous things to each other, ending or ruining lives for little or no reason, it seems odd to me that I can be as offended as I am by property crimes such as those described in the article (or by the recent FPP about the feather thief) but somehow I find it harder to understand and to forgive those who, for no reasons other than their own selfishness, conspire to destroy our shared cultural heritage.
posted by Nerd of the North at 4:49 PM on September 2, 2018 [21 favorites]


I really liked this post, so thanks. Most of it I knew already but it's nice to have it all together. All us booksellers here in Asheville worked together to alert each other to thefts, and often our call would be ahead of the thief trying to sell the book, so the book would be confiscated and the thief got nothing. Yay! What I really hate are the breakers, who slice pages and maps out of bound volumes. Nothing is to bad to say of them.
posted by MovableBookLady at 5:06 PM on September 2, 2018 [11 favorites]


This also puts me in the mind to watch The Ninth Gate again...

The book, The Club Dumas, is soooo much better.

Polanski and Depp utterly fail their material.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:07 PM on September 2, 2018 [5 favorites]


This is fascinating.

But also. . . these are all mass-produced objects. That a print produced on a mechanical press in 1890 is worth so much more than a scanned version of the same printed in 2018, to anybody who isn't specifically studying printing technology, is astonishing. The thieves are assholes. But, the culture that values authenticity is also very much to blame.
posted by eotvos at 6:30 PM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


every so often I have a nightmare that I've accidentally left a library or archive with a manuscript - and I wake up not sure if it's real or not. (it's not real. I think). In my last one, I was trying to sneak the manuscript back into the library without getting caught.

I don't think I could ever understand these thieves.
posted by jb at 7:49 PM on September 2, 2018


one of my favourite part-time jobs was when I was employed to (very carefully) pencil call numbers on rare books and magazines. I was also required to deface them (slightly) by stamping the university crest in ink, quite close to the binding where it couldn't be cut out. I felt I was doing library justice: making the book less stealable while doing as little damage to it as I could.
posted by jb at 7:55 PM on September 2, 2018 [3 favorites]


eotvos, it is safe to assume that the majority of everything ever printed has never been scanned, especially so for ephemera. The cult of authenticity has its flaws, but this is not one of them.

On a side note, many literally irreplaceable documents and entomological samples (among other things) have been lost forever in Brazil's Museo Nacional fire
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 8:31 PM on September 2, 2018 [9 favorites]


The thing to remember too about a lot of botanical prints from the Enlightenment is that they are truly beautiful objects in their own right. Often hand coloured, drawn to 1:1 scale, in tremendous detail. Some of them you really can't appreciate for their delicacy and vibrancy, and the skill of the artist, without seeing them in person. It's no different than wanting to see the Eiffel Tower yourself instead of just a video or photo, or hearing Big Ben or the bells of Notre Dame instead of just a recording. Scans are lossy. You lose something of the vibrancy and texture when you scan and the detail is lost if the scan isn't a high enough resolution.
posted by Jilder at 10:00 PM on September 2, 2018 [7 favorites]


ivan ivanych samovar, agreed, and a good point. But, the thieves could have just as easily photographed the originals, likely with the library's permission, without damaging the originals. I can only assume they didn't choose to do so because selling 100 copies of a 200 year old work is worth less than selling one stolen original. That's partly our fault, I think.

I weep for the Museo Nacional.

.
posted by eotvos at 10:02 PM on September 2, 2018


I had a boyfriend who worked as an RA for a history professor in college. She had him go through the copies of Harper's Weekly, looking at specific pages for Winslow Homer woodcut prints.

They had all been removed, cleanly sliced out at the binding, probably by the same breaker.

Years later, I took a rare books class and read a bunch of McDade's work. I wrote my final paper on technologies that archives were using to deter theft, and read all kinds of fascinating and unbelievable tales of book thieves: people who stole papers by rolling them up and sliding them into their socks, for example, or a thief who scaled the side of the library by shimmying up (and then later, back down) a drainpipe.

It just breaks my heart that people can be this selfish. How dare you cut a book apart and sell it like scrap? How dare you?!
posted by sockermom at 10:12 PM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


I can only assume they didn't choose to do so because selling 100 copies of a 200 year old work is worth less than selling one stolen original. That's partly our fault, I think.
You are assuming that the only value of text is the information it contains. This is not the case. The way knowledge is transmitted is a technology that can tell you a great deal about the people who produced it. One of the things that's fascinating about the written word is that we can actually take the long game. Most of the early clay tablets that we have are simply records of financial transactions of various types. We no longer care much about who owed what to whom, but we are still able to learn a great deal based on how that information was stored and transmitted. in the archives world, this is called artifactual value. There are other values beyond informational value, like evidential value (what does a body of records tell you about its creators) as well.
posted by sockermom at 10:21 PM on September 2, 2018 [12 favorites]


In my day, we used chains.
posted by clavdivs at 10:50 PM on September 2, 2018 [6 favorites]


You are assuming that the only value of text is the information it contains.
I'm assuming the value of a text that private collectors willing to buy stolen library artifacts care about has less to do with the information contained in the physical object than the percieved value of authenticity. That historical objects have real value that can and should be studied isn't really in question,
posted by eotvos at 10:54 PM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


The book, The Club Dumas, is soooo much better.

Polanski and Depp utterly fail their material.



I’ve not read the book, but that’s similar to what I’ve heard from others, too. I’ll put it on my reading list!
posted by darkstar at 11:29 PM on September 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Scans of rare books and images can be bought: I have a lovely scan and print of a John Speed (c1610) map that I bought for £9 at the British Library. (Also, scanning technology is much better these days - I just received some scans of an embroidery work, and you can see the individual stitches. Framed, it looks almost 3d).

I'm not a collector - I cared about the content and the artistry, not the value. My map has no boasting value, no resale value. Collectors want the ORIGINAL old thing.

It's more than just the high end market. I've seen a shop selling "genuine antique maps" for a hundred pounds or more - and I recognized them as maps that had been sliced out of books. The book was probably not from a library - there are a lot of 17th-19th century books floating around that aren't especially rare. But seller will still mutilate them because they can make more money selling their bits.
posted by jb at 6:04 AM on September 3, 2018


But seller will still mutilate them because they can make more money selling their bits.

True enough, but for how long? The more this is done, the rarer the un-defiled atlases become. Comes a point at which point, supply and demand....
posted by BWA at 8:46 AM on September 3, 2018


even for legitimate items, BWA, a lot of sellers (ebay, etsy, et cetery) can make more money by parting out all the pretty pictures than they can by selling the whole item. for rare enough items, the intact book might increase in value enough, but for most things in the low and middle end, buyers frequently just care about the pretty, pretty pictures...
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 12:49 PM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: who hasn't stolen a book?
posted by zengargoyle at 3:41 PM on September 3, 2018 [1 favorite]


"The disproportionality of the harm they were willing to inflict for meager benefit to themselves offended me deeply, and still does, as much or more than the crime itself."

Wow, that's a very frightening story. Were they ever caught?

I have no comparable tale of my own, but I have been watching a ton of crime shows lately and it always bothers me when poor people rob or do crimes to other poor people. There's a whole class of people for whom I barely register crimes against, taking money from someone with too much money is way less bad, possibly even good, compared to robbing the already poor. I think people in general can have an appreciation for crimes if they are done artfully, or if the victim is unsympathetic enough. ISIS is horrible in that regard because they do everything artlessly and they destroy not only to no benefit, but sometimes to their own detriment. Cutting off the nose to spite the face is an understatement, they'll dissolve the cell walls of the face not even to spite, they left behind reason.

Regarding these rare texts: Are these all fully digitized by now? Theft, fire, and time all conspire against these physical objects, but their contents can be archived and shared until theft, fire, and time conspire against our harddrives and servers. It would be a shame to lose all that history because they were never properly archived.
posted by GoblinHoney at 12:36 PM on September 4, 2018


I saw American Animals last week at a free screening and it's easily the worst movie I've seen this year. Plays the terrorisation of an older woman for laughs then asks the audience to feel empathy for the young men who tormented her, because what about their feelings? The whole film is obsessed with the motivations of these d-bags dudes as if, just because they're young, white, privileged males who decided to commit a vaguely exotic crime they're somehow fascinating by proxy, when they're just garden variety scumbags. Forget "what kind of asshole steals books?", what kind of asshole beats up a librarian? UGH I hated it so much.
posted by Gin and Broadband at 2:33 PM on September 4, 2018 [2 favorites]


> Great post, but I feel like it was a missed opportunity by MovableBookLady tbh

Could've been worse.
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:33 PM on September 12, 2018 [2 favorites]


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