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Nick Schmidle Interviews Book Thief, Forger M.M. De Caro for The New Yorker

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In this week’s issue of The New Yorker, investigative journalist and author Nicholas Schmidle interviews disgraced library director Marino Massimo De Caro, whose crimes I started writing about in September. Last year, Lorenzo Norhagi, Minister for National Heritage & Culture, appointed Marino Massimo De Caro Director of the Biblioteca Statale dei Gerolamini (State Library of Gerolamini).

The Ministry of National Heritage & Culture runs the library, the second-oldest in Italy, which is part of the National Monument Girolamini.[1] After finding the place in a disarray, Tomaso Montanari, a professor at Federico II University and newspaper columnist, circulated a petition demanding that Minister Norhagi remove De Caro from office.

On April 19, 2012, police seized control of the library and began a formal investigation of De Caro. They arrested De Caro and the curator, Fr. Sandro Marsano, and began to investigate Senator Marcello Dell’Utri and Maria Grazia Cerone in May of 2012. The prosecutor, Giovanni Mellilo, charged Fr. Marsano had allowed De Caro’s confederates (“unauthorized persons, selected in advance by Massimo De Caro”) “uncontrolled access” to conservation rooms.

On March 15, 2013, a judge sentenced De Caro to seven years in prison and banned him from ever holding public office again. On August 28, 2013, Professor Montanari recounted in a newspaper article that in September of 2011, just three months after Minister Galan appointed him Library Director, De Caro had chosen to sell books he stole through the auction house Zisska & Schauer and delivered 600 volumes to his accomplice, Luca Cableri, an antiquarian bookseller in return for the sum of €1,000,000 and the understanding he would receive more money after the auction through an intermediary in Switzerland.

According to Zisska & Schauer’s own account, before they could hold an auction in May of last year, an intermediary offered the auction house a consignment of more than 400 books, which they included in Catalog 59. On the eve of the auction, the Bavarian State Criminal Police confiscated some of the books to be sold at auction because they were believed to have been stolen from the Library of Gerolamini, and since several of the books the police confiscated were from the consignment of over 400 books, as a precaution the auction house set aside all the books from that consignment.

Last July, Munich police arrested Executive Director Herbert Schauer on a European arrest warrant issued by Italian authorizes. In other words, the Italian criminal justice system holds him culpable instead of considering him a dupe.

On October 15, 2013 Wolfgang Lacher issued a press release on behalf of Zisska & Schauer.

Regrettably, we have to inform you that Mr. Herbert Schauer is still in custody. On 2 August 2013, he was arrested by the Munich criminal justice authorities on the basis of a European arrest warrant issued by the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Naples. A criminal investigation is continuing in Naples into the theft of books from the Girolamini Library.

Legal proceedings are still under way. On 24 September, Mr. Schauer’s lawyers successfully negotiated the lifting, as the result of a procedural error, of the European arrest warrant issued in Naples. However, on the same day, the Public Prosecutor in Naples forwarded a new arrest warrant to the Bavarian authorities. Mr. Schauer was granted a hearing on 26 September but the Oberlandesgericht München ruled that he should continue to be held in custody pending extradition proceedings.

Since 2 August 2013, ZISSKA & SCHAUER has received countless expressions of support and solidarity, for which we are deeply grateful. Without such widespread demonstrations of confidence in the soundness and integrity of ZISSKA & SCHAUER we would have been unable to resume work in the frame of the new organisational format.

Our auction catalogue 62 has just been published. The auction is scheduled for 6 – 8 November 2013. Auctioneer Friedrich Zisska will conduct the sale. We look forward to your participation.

Announcing our Spring Sale: 7 – 9 May 2014.

In August of last year, Elisabetta Povoledo recounted in The New York Times, also related that two American scholars had identified instances when De Caro was connected to the sale of books that seemed to be forgeries of books by the famous astronomer Galileo Galilei. Nick Wilding, Assistant Professor of History at Georgia State University, believed that two copies of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius – one that had appeared in a 2005 Sotheby’s catalog and another that had been offered for sale in New York City – were forgeries. The one in New York supposedly had Galileo’s inscription and was illustrated with four of his watercolor paintings, but both it and the one from the Sotheby’s catalog had markings that indicated to Professor Povoledo they were copies of a 1964 facsimile edition of Sidereus Nuncius.

De Caro had tried to sell the copy now in New York to Owen Gingrich, Professor Emeritus of Astronomy and the History of Science at Harvard and senior astronomer emeritus at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Professor Gingrich concluded Galileo could not have produced the watercolors because of an “astronomical blunder.” Gingrich and J. Franklin Mowery, Head of Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., have detected other forged books, including three copies of Galileo’s Le Operazioni del Compasso Geometrico e Militare, at least one of which De Caro had passed off as an antiquarian book.

In “A Very Rare Book” (starting on p. 62), Schmidle tackles De Caro’s crimes with a focus on the forged copy of Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, and, according to a press release, “for the first time, the man who fooled an international community of experts—and nearly got away with it—tells his story.” The Sidereus Nuncius (“Starry Messenger”) originally published in 1610, presents some of Galileo’s most revolutionary discoveries; through his telescope he found moons orbiting Jupiter and saw craters and mountains covering the Earth’s moon.

In 2005, Richard Lan, the well-respected owner of an antiquarian bookshop in Manhattan, was approached by De Caro, then a rare-book dealer, with an offer to buy a unique copy of the work, featuring ink-wash lunar drawings. Schmidle writes that “Lan called the ‘Sidereus Nuncius’ the ‘acquisition of a lifetime’ ” and planned to sell it for a price in the millions of dollars.

He shared it with leading Galileo authorities around the globe, who verified that it was authentic. One scholar, Horst Bredekamp, in Berlin, theorized that Lan’s was a rare, embellished proof copy of the book.

Bredekamp assembled a team of researchers who spent two months analyzing the text, using high-tech tools such as long-wave ultraviolet radiation (to identify inks) and X-ray fluorescence (to dissect paper composition). Their findings reinforced Bredekamp’s theory about the book’s “unique status” as a proof copy.

It was a major claim, and news of the discovery rippled through the international community of Galileo scholars: the lunar drawings in Lan’s copy strongly resembled another set of Galileo’s drawings, known as the Florence Sheet, thought to be a direct representation of what Galileo saw through his telescope. The Florence Sheet, described by one bookseller as equivalent to the “Declaration of Independence in the history of scientific discovery,” was at risk of becoming a historical afterthought. However, in 2011, Nick Wilding began to delve into the findings about Lan’s Sidereus Nuncius.

“In Wilding’s view, Lan’s copy had not been approached with sufficient skepticism,” Schmidle writes. Wilding amassed a body of evidence that Lan’s copy was a fake, with parallels to questionable copies of another Galileo text, the Compasso. Both Lan’s copy and those of the Compasso could be traced back to De Caro.

Bredekamp initially balked at Wilding’s findings, stating that, if the book was a forgery, the “history of science could close its doors.” He eventually conceded, and reconvened his team, this time to anatomize a fraud. Schmidle asked Bredekamp if the team could reverse-engineer the book—did they know how De Caro had done it? “No,” he said. “It’s a masterpiece.”

Schmidle visited De Caro at his villa, where he had been under house arrest since August, awaiting a second trial on charges of conspiracy and looting. In addition to looting what the judge believed to be millions of euros' worth of books from the Gerolamini Library, De Caro has admitted to stealing books from the library of the adjacent convent and the library of the famous Montecassino Monastery (where St. Benedict of Nursia founded the Benedictine Order).

A judge has frozen De Caro’s bank accounts; his two BMWs; his villa, which he purchased for €1,250,000 in 2009; artworks; and his personal collection of rare books. Schmidle writes that De Caro told him that, “‘for the first time,’ he would be ‘happy to disclose’ details about his business affairs to ‘a person that is really interested to go deep in my personality.’ ”

De Caro described how he’d dropped out of the University of Siena and gained an interest in rare books, learning the intricacies of the trade. When Schmidle asked him outright how he had forged the “Sidereus Nuncius,” De Caro replied that he “wanted to create a joke.”

Schmidle writes that De Caro, the college dropout, “held an imperious grudge against people who had spent years studying in libraries.” As a great fan of Galileo, De Caro knew that the printer had sent Galileo thirty copies of the first edition of Sidereus Nuncius without lunar etchings, leaving pages blank.

“De Caro decided to embroider on this historical fact and trick the world’s Galileo experts,” Schmidle writes. “De Caro set out to make a forgotten work: a copy with unique watercolors.”

Over the years, De Caro “had visited papermaking facilities around Italy, learning how artisans re-created seventeenth-century watermarks and other vintage elements,” Schmidle writes. He took care to insert a minor error or two into the forgery. “If I didn’t create [the errors], it would be impossible to say the book was a fake,” he said. “In the past six months, dealers repeatedly expressed dismay to me about the state of the antiquarian-book trade,” Schmidle writes. Richard Lan, who still owns the book and plans to sue, said that the Galileo forgeries have blindsided the market.

The benefit of magazines like The New Yorker is they allow investigative journalists to write in-depth treatments of a subject. For comparable coverage, a newspaper reporter (or group of reporters) would have to write a series of articles.[2]

It would not surprise me if Schmidle has enough material to start a book. A movie studio or production company may also want to buy the right to adapt the story for the silver screen.

[1] The Congregation of the Oratory is a preaching order rather than a teaching order, but it sponsors many schools. The Oratorians named the church and monastery complex in Naples in honor of the Church of San Girolamo della Carita in Rome, where St. Philip Neri (1515-1595) built his first Oratory. The Oratorian Fathers are sometimes called the Girolamini or Gerolamini.

[2] The equivalent for television reporters would be to compare the coverage of a story by 60 Minutes to a news story on the same subject by big city news anchor or network news anchor on a nightly news broadcast. The gold standard for television news coverage, the equivalent of an print investigative journalist writing a book, would have to be a Frontline documentary on PBS.

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