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Other Infamous Thieves Who Pillaged Libraries, Part I

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The Newberry Library is hardly the first research library or archive to be robbed by a savvy thief. Thieves have come in forms librarians and archivists would not ordinary expect, including covetous scholars, trusted booksellers, or even employees. Antiquarian map dealer Edward Forbes Smiley III having admitted to stealing two maps from The Newberry Library (and ninety-five maps from the British Library, the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, and Harvard University’s Houghton Library) brings to mind similar cases.

On July 19, 1985, Joseph Putna was released from federal prison, having pled guilty to two counts of mail fraud over the theft of nearly 600 books and manuscripts from The John Crerar Library while it was on the I.I.T. campus in the 1970s and the sale of 247 books to a famous antiquarian bookseller in San Francisco under false pretenses. William Simon Jacques, a chartered accountant, was imprisoned in 2001 with nineteen counts of theft from the Cambridge University Library, the British Library, and the London Library in the 1990s.

While he was in prison, he faced trial in 2002 to two more counts of theft and pled guilty. He was ordered to pay £310,000 in compensation. In 2010, he was imprisoned again for stealing books from the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library after his release from prison, between 2004 and 2007.

In 2000, the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg discovered that twenty-four books were missing, including a 16th Century book by Fr. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). That same year, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.) launched an investigation into the theft of forty-three Chinese books and scrolls from Harvard University’s Harvard-Yenching Library.

In December of 2004, Anders Burius, Manuscript Department head at the Royal Library of Sweden, committed suicide after police questioned him over the theft of scores of books from 1995 to 2004, which he had sold to a German auction house under false pretenses. Also in 2004, Peter Bellwood, an English landscape gardener, admitted in Swansea Crown Court that in 2000 he had stolen fifty maps from atlases in the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (National Library of Wales) in Aberystwyth.

In May of 2008, a rich Iranian scholar and businessman Farhad Hakimzadeh, pled guilty to fourteen charges of theft from the British Library and the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and a judge sentenced him to imprisonment for two years and fined him £7,500. The British Library also sued him. In 2012, a federal judge sentenced Barry H. Landau to seven years in prison for the theft of 10,000 documents from libraries on the East Coast of the United States

Last year, an Italian judge sentenced Marino Massimo De Caro to seven years in prison and banned him from ever holding public office again over the theft of 6,000 books from the State Library of Gerolamini while he was director. In that case, in June a Neapolitan court found German bookseller Herbert Schauer guilty of illegally exporting cultural property from Italy as well as participating in embezzlement and sentenced him to five years in prison.

In the 1970s, without authorization, Delbert Wilson, a longtime employee of The John Crerar Library, allowed “Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Putna” access to the rare book vault, as Jennifer S. Larsen recounted in AB Bookman’s Weekly in 1990 (“An Enquiry into the Crerar Library Affair”). He continued even after Executive Director and Librarian William Budington reprimanded him for doing so.

Left alone in the vault on a regular basis, Putna stole hundreds of books, including De revolutionibus orbium coelestium by Copernicus, De Motu Cordis by William Harvey (1578-1657), and De Humani Corporis Fabrica by Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564). To sell the books, Putna concocted a story about being the widower of a woman whose father – the fictitious Bruno von Menck – was killed by the Nazis toward the end of World War II, and she had inherited his fabulous book collection, which he proposed to sell on consignment.

In the spring of 1983, after The John Crerar Library merged with The University of Chicago, Robert Rosenthal, Curator of Special Collections at The University of Chicago, and his staff concluded 600 rare books and manuscripts were missing from the Crerar collections. When the FBI arrested Joseph Putna in January of 1983, they seized 328 stolen books.

Under the name Putnam, he had placed 247 stolen books on consignment with the esteemed antiquarian book dealer Warren Howell of San Francisco, who bought back thirty-nine books he’d sold and gave them to the U.S. Attorney in Milwaukee. Putna pled guilty to two counts of mail fraud and spent two years in a federal prison.

In 1983, The John Crerar Library filed a civil suit against Putna, Kay Barber (whom Putna passed off as his wife), Warren Howell, and John Howell–Books, seeking $400,000 in recompense for the stolen books and manuscripts Howell was able to sell and $600,000 in punitive damages, as William B. Crawford, Jr. reported in the Chicago Tribune in 1985. Howell died before it came to trial and his estate made an out-of-court settlement and the estate paid no punitive damages, according to Ms. Larsen.

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