A Library Plundered of Treasures
January 14, 2020 7:39 AM   Subscribe

One by one, rare books vanished from the library — the Journal of George Washington; a copy of Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica” valued at nearly a million dollars; an Atlas by a 19th century German explorer worth $1.2 million. Over a quarter of a century, these printed treasures and hundreds of others were stolen from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library. And some of them were heading just around the corner. (SL Washington Post)

On Monday, Gregory Priore, the former archivist of the Carnegie Library’s rare book room, and John Schulman, owner of Caliban Book Shop, pleaded guilty to theft and receiving stolen property for snatching $8 million worth of rare books, maps and other objects. Schulman also pleaded guilty to forgery. Their sentencing is scheduled for April.

Prosecutors say the scheme ran from 1992 to 2017, during which time Priore would steal the rare texts from the library’s Oliver Room — sometimes simply walking right out of the building with them, prosecutors said — and pass them along to Schulman, who would sell them at his store and online.

From CNN, emphasis mine: The theft is among the world's largest losses to date, according to court documents. Gregory Priore, a former archivist at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, was originally charged with 10 counts but pleaded down to theft of unlawful taking and receiving stolen property. Both counts are felonies in Pennsylvania. John Schulman, the owner of Caliban Book shop, originally received 20 charges but pleaded guilty to a forgery charge in addition to theft by deception and receiving stolen property.

A statement from the Carnegie Library.
posted by Bella Donna (14 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
"A Crime Against Culture: In an industry built on trust, a bookseller and a librarian are accused of stealing hundreds of rare books from their colleagues." (The Atlantic, December 2018)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:04 AM on January 14 [5 favorites]

Thank you, Mr.Know-it-some! I looked for additional articles to link to but missed that.
posted by Bella Donna at 8:05 AM on January 14

A friend of mine is another used book store owner in Pittsburgh and told me that she had thought of Schulman as a friend and mentor and was devastated when this all came out out him. I've personally bought many books from Caliban before this, it was a great store.
posted by octothorpe at 8:43 AM on January 14 [5 favorites]

I used to go to Caliban on my lunch break a couple of times a week - this makes me sad that I ever spent money there.
posted by namewithoutwords at 9:04 AM on January 14 [3 favorites]

Perhaps it's time to make owning antiquities and historic artifacts embarrassing.
posted by eotvos at 9:24 AM on January 14 [7 favorites]

I'm getting the feeling that while Priore and Schulman were the main movers, they had a whole lot of at least passive accomplices in the rare book industry. Apparently their main tool was simply to stamp these incredibly rare and valuable books as "withdrawn" from Carnegie, and the buyers didn't ask any questions. You can't tell me that a whole bunch of them didn't have a good idea that the incredible bargain prices were because they were stolen goods. But as long as you stay carefully ignorant, you can make money!

Also, wow... 25 years with only one person managing the rare books collection, in an era that had huge high profile book thefts, and no auditing at all? Not very good management by the library. I'm glad the Free Library of Philadelphia had better systems (or better luck), or Milton's Shakespeare might have disappeared into some magnate's book collection, never to be revealed for what it was.
posted by tavella at 9:24 AM on January 14 [5 favorites]

It unconscionable that one guy could have stolen books from the Carnegie Library for that long without anyone noticing. No one did inventory in all that time?
posted by octothorpe at 9:54 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]

I hope they can trace who bought those books and claw them back.
posted by hypnogogue at 10:20 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]

More on book plundering previously, here on Metafilter.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 11:05 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]

This has been such a weird saga to follow. Any bolding below is mine:

From the CNN link: Prosecutors alleged the relationship between Priore and Schulman dates back to 1992 and lasted for 25 years, until a Carnegie Library staff member auditing the museum's Oliver Room, which houses its rare items, noticed some pieces were vandalized or missing altogether. [...] Pall Mall Art Advisors, an independent art appraisal firm that was brought in to aid the investigation, appraised the 336 affected items at $8.1 million in 2017. [...] Pennsylvania's statute of limitations for the charges runs only five years, Veverka said, so the pleaded charges against Schulman and Priore would only date back to approximately 2012.

From the WaPo link: The library realized that items were missing from the Oliver Room thanks to an insurance appraisal in April 2017, and it was determined that the thefts had taken place over an extended period of time, said Carnegie Library spokeswoman Suzanne Thinnes.

The Vintage News, Aug 10, 2018: The pair’s crimes were uncovered after police working with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office began investigating the Oliver Room in June 2017. It was triggered by a scheduled appraisal that found “multiple items as being missing or damaged,” according to the criminal complaint filed in July 2018 against Priore and Schulman. When the inventory was compared with the room’s contents from an appraisal done in 1991, authorities discovered that about 320 items were missing and 16 were vandalized by the removal of certain portions of the book.

Carnegie Library warned in 1991 to move rare books to libraries with tighter security, better climate control -- but never did (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 4, 2018) In 1991, two rare book appraisers alerted Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh leaders that its valuable collection of centuries-old maps and rare books would be much safer and better preserved in more secure, nearby research libraries, either at the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University. The collection was never moved.

It’s becoming clearer why the spokesperson for the Carnegie Library has been sort of tight-lipped about the whole stolen-books thing. (Melville House publisher blog, April 5, 2018) Donnis de Camp and Marc Selvaggio appraised the collection in the Oliver Room from May to November of 1991. Their recommendation? Get those rare and important documents out of the library and into research libraries at either the University of Pittsburgh or Carnegie Mellon University, where tighter security and better preservation methods would keep them safe.
The appraisers also suggested that the library sell some of its rare holdings, especially those that had duplicates readily available nearby. “Without diminishing the cultural resources [of the area], duplicates could be deaccessioned and sold for resources that could be applied to preservation needs of the rest of the collection,” the report said. De Camp and Selvaggio, who owned the nearby Schoyer’s Books at the time, also noted significant fluctuations in temperature and humidity within the Oliver Room. Their 232-page appraisal, acquired by the Post-Gazette, concluded with the recommendation to move the rare books: "The university libraries are already set up for adequate security, climate control, and control of patron use, in ways that the Carnegie has not fully implemented."

Court documents detail theft of rare maps, books, prints from Carnegie Library (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 29, 2018) Mr. Priore was appointed sole archivist and manager of the rare book room in 1992. His job duties included preserving the history of the library, identifying items that should go to the Oliver Room and maintaining its contents. Mr. Schulman, the affidavit said, opened Caliban Book Shop, with co-owner Emily Hetzel, in 1991. [...] According to the court filings, during its own investigation, library administrators did a review of Mr. Priore’s email account through Carnegie Library and found several messages between 2015 and 2016 in which he communicated with billing offices at Ellis School and Duquesne University. “In several of the Ellis School emails, Priore requested to have pending payment due dates extended. In one such email thread, dated Oct. 28, 2015, Priore stated, ‘I am trying to juggle tuition payments for four kids,’” the affidavit said. [...] In another set of messages to a property management company in February 2016, the affidavit said, he asked that a check be held because his wife had been unable to work because she had a heart attack the previous December. “Priore’s wife is a full-time employee of [Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh] with no record of any leave taken during that time period,” investigators wrote.

The wife of an antiquarian book dealer charged with selling rare books stolen from the Carnegie Library has opened an online business with 150,000 used and rare titles for sale. (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 30, 2019) Emily Hetzel, 53, of Squirrel Hill, notified friends and rare book dealers via email Tuesday that she has opened Common Crow Books. She is the wife of John Schulman, 54, who was charged in July with selling stolen books, maps and plates from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare book room in Oakland. [...] In an email Tuesday, she directed recipients to the website commoncrowbooks.com, which launched last week. “Some of you may know that I am the spouse of John Schulman of Caliban Bookshop. But I am the sole owner and proprietor of Common Crow Books, and this business has no connection in any sense to Caliban Books,” the email said.

TL:DR There's a big gap between the 1991 collection appraisal, which recommended sending much of the Oliver Room's holdings to secure, climate-controlled research libraries, as well as selling some of the books, and the 2017 appraisal which was key to the investigation; in rejecting that initial advice, Carnegie accidentally provided ample opportunity for its collection to be whittled down anyway.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:32 AM on January 14 [7 favorites]

So, I haven't been back to Caliban since this story first broke. I was heartbroken by the news. I have bought books from Caliban and also sold a number of books to John over the years. It was an Oakland institution, to be sure. There was tremendous knowledge there, but many have also told me that they experienced a condescending and elitist tone when they engaged the staff (and John). Hardly surprising, as Caliban took books seriously, and also understood them as a commodity. It was not to be mistaken merely for a used book store, despite its limited, cramped space and crude furnishings. The tragedy of these two men is in their crude betrayal of the public trust, ongoing for years, especially considering the main Carnegie Public Library, at the heart of the University District, was the victim whose resources were plundered. Every time I walk on North Craig Street now, it pains me to see the familiar, little blue storefront across the street, with books for sale in the windows.
posted by buffalo at 11:49 AM on January 14 [1 favorite]

Does this library not have indelible library markings in conspicuous places? Granted, this practice isn't universally applied in all rare book collections, but it's been common practice for centuries.

As to the current scandal, well, where to start? It's almost something out of a Bernie Rhodenbarr novel.

I mean to say - "Caliban" Book Shop? It was Prospero who said that "my library was a large enough dukedom for me." Kind of a red flag right there, if one were looking for red flags.

John Locke has these guys' number. (That said, the ILAB does what it can.)

posted by BWA at 12:26 PM on January 14 [2 favorites]

Does this library not have indelible library markings in conspicuous places?

Apparently they just stamped the stolen books with such markings with a "Carnegie Library - withdrawn" and the buyers were very careful not to ask any questions or investigate. They used an authentic one stolen by Priore, apparently, but it's not like it wouldn't be easy to fake one up.
posted by tavella at 12:34 PM on January 14

If I was the sentencing judge, Mr. Schulman and Mr. Priore would each get 50 years without parole. With the stipulation that, for every book returned, one of them gets a year off that sentence. Neither may communicate with the other.

That should jog their memory.
posted by Twang at 1:46 PM on January 14 [3 favorites]

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