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Other Infamous Thieves Who Pillaged Libraries, Part IV

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In 2000, the Russian Academy of Sciences (R.A.S.) in St. Petersburg discovered that twenty-four books were missing, including a 16th Century book by Fr. Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), the B.B.C. reported on Friday, February 4, 2000. Staff librarians realized the theft had occurred when they searched for their copy of the Copernicus book upon hearing a copy had turned up at an American auction. Copies had been stolen in Poland and Ukraine in 1988.

The Saint Petersburg Police appealed to INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization) for help. The other twenty-three missing books include works by Keppler and Agricola.

In 2001, John Varoli wrote on the “Arts Abroad” blog of The New York Times, “In the 1990's hundreds of millions of dollars in art, antiques, books and manuscripts were stolen in Russia, mostly from cultural institutions in St. Petersburg like the Library of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Russian National Library, the State Russian Museum, the Academy of Fine Arts and the State Hermitage Museum.”

Varoli reported that thieves struck at private collections more often than public collections, but the State Russian Museum had been hit multiple times around the turn of the century and the Russian National Library, which has 25,000,000 books and manuscripts “was being robbed regularly.”

The most spectacular burglary at the library was in late 1994, when thieves stole 47 medieval European and 45 ancient Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Hebrew manuscripts, valued at about $300 million.

The crime was the brainchild of the former head of the library's rare manuscripts department, who had emigrated to Israel. A joint operation by Israeli and Russian police lead to the arrests of nearly a dozen people in both countries and the return of the manuscripts before they left Russia.

In 1995, Varoli related, an edition of Audubon’s Birds in America valued at $4,000,000 was stolen from the Russian National Library. It turned up in the Christie’s auction house in Berlin. Thankfully, they returned it.

On November 20, 2002, Irina Titova reported that St. Petersburg police force arrested three people “suspected of stealing three rare and valuable editions from leading St. Petersburg libraries. The criminal group is suspected of being behind the theft of at least 20 such books from major libraries in Moscow, Saratov, Kazan and St. Petersburg over the last three years.”

The police believed the suspects were responsible for the theft of a copy of Sir Isaac Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica ("Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy"), published in London in 1687, and an illustrated 1913 edition of a poetry collection by Russian futurist Konstantin Bolshakov titled Le Futur ("The Future") from the Russian National Library on November 6, 2002. That same day, an 1813 edition of English philosopher Robert Owen's A New View of Society was taken from the reading room of the R.A.S. Library in St. Petersburg.

The suspects, who all live in the Central Russian city of Saratov, were named as… Svetlana Danilina, the head of the Electropribor construction bureau in the city; …Dmitry Zinchenko, who is unemployed; and… Pavel Prokofyev, an employee at a prison... All three hold university degrees in either philology or history. Zinchenko, who police say was the leader of the group, graduated in history. During their investigation, the police found a database of files for various valuable book sales on his computer. Danilina was detained on a train on her way from St. Petersburg to Astrakhan… while the other two were detained in Saratov. According to the police press service, Zinchenko, who is a veteran of Russia's special forces, attempted to commit suicide in the course of his arrest. As a result of the police operation, all editions stolen from St. Petersburg were returned to the local libraries... With the exception of the volumes stolen in Kazan, the books stolen from the libraries in the other cities were also recovered. The estimated value of the four editions stolen from the St. Petersburg libraries alone was $85,000. A commission from the Culture Ministry that was dispatched to the Russian National Library after the thefts were reported has evaluated the security measures at the institution and has submitted a list of recommendations on tightening the situation at the library, Yelena Nebogatikova, the deputy head of the library, said... At present, security measures at the library are relatively lax, with patrons required to have a control slip that they receive on entering the facility stamped by a person on duty in the department from which they receive materials upon their return. A police officer at the library exit, who is responsible for checking the slips, may also require those leaving the library to submit to a search of any bags they are carrying. There are no electronic or other technical security systems in place. The three suspects were arrested on charges under Article 164, Part 1, of the Russian Criminal Code, which covers the theft of articles of special cultural value…

In 2007, the Institute of History and Material Culture at the Russian Academy of Sciences also reported the theft of History and Monuments of Byzantine Enamel, published in Saint Petersburg in 1892.

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, the B.B.C. reported on Sunday, October 8, 2000. In March, a staff member discovered the manuscripts were missing.

The Harvard-Yenching Library immediately reported the theft to the F.B.I., but at that time neither the library nor the law-enforcement agency would publicly acknowledge the theft. In the summer, the books and scrolls were added to the F.B.I.’s Stolen Art File, a Web site that helps art buyers avoid purchasing stolen artworks.

The texts, which were written over a period of 1,000 years, provide record of the thoughts of poets, philosophers, and statesmen. "When books like this are taken, the break in the collection has a far-reaching impact on scholarship," said Nancy Cline, who was then the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College. "Its effect is worldwide."

Today, the Harvard-Yenching Library has the largest collection of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean books outside Asia. It is a research library covering all academic disciplines.

The Harvard-Yenching Library began, in 1928, as the Chinese-Japanese Library of the Harvard-Yenching Institute with a Chinese collection of 4,526 volumes and a Japanese collection of 1,668 volumes. The Harvard-Yenching Institute also incorporated in 1928.

The Harvard College Library had begun to amass a Chinese collection in 1879 when a group of Bostonians involved in the China trade brought in a Chinese scholar, Ge Kunhua, a resident of the port-city of Ningbo in Zhejiang province, to teach Chinese. He brought books with him when he came to teach at Harvard. Harvard began to amass the Japanese collection in 1914 when two professors from Tokyo Imperial University, Hattori Unokichi and Anesaki Masaharu came to lecture.

The Widener Library transferred the books to the Chinese-Japanese Library of the Harvard-Yenching Institute in 1928 and Dr. A. Kaiming Ch’iu, then a doctoral candidate at Harvard, became the first librarian. With the help of the (now defunct) Yenching University in Peking (now Beijing), the Chinese-Japanese Library had amassed a collection of 110,000 volumes by 1938.

As Harvard’s Far East Asian curriculum expanded, Manchu, Tibetan, and Mongolian collections were added, as were Western-language journals and monographs on Far East Asian subjects. A Korean collection was added in 1951 and a Vietnamese collection in 1973.

The Chinese-Japanese Library of the Harvard-Yenching Institute became the Harvard-Yenching Library in 1965. Eleven years later, the Harvard-Yenching Institute transferred it to the Harvard College Library.

The 2005 arrest of E. Forbes Smiley III after he dropped a razor on the floor of Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library prompted The Harvard Crimson’s Brendan R. Linn in to speak with Beth Brainard, who was then a spokeswoman for the Harvard Libraries. Linn described security protocols for the Harvard University Map Collection (H.U.M.C.), housed in Pusey Library, and Houghton Library, and recapitulated thefts that were known to have occurred at the Harvard Libraries.

Linn related, “In 1999, a thief made off with $1 million worth of Chinese printed books, dating back to the seventh century A.D., that had been kept in the Harvard-Yenching Library. Three years earlier, another $1 million in books went missing from Widener, Loeb, and the Fine Arts libraries.”

While the husband of a Harvard graduate student eventually confessed to the second heist, the Harvard-Yenching theft remains unsolved, Brainard said.

In 2004, a researcher’s request to see Das illustrirte Mississippithal led to the discovery that it and other books were missing from the Kungliga biblioteket (the Royal Library of Sweden, which on the English-language version of its Web site, calls itself the KB and the National Library of Sweden). The thefts occurred from 1995 to 2004.

The thief was Manuscript Department Head Anders Burius, who committed suicide in 2004. He had been stoling books from the Royal Library since he was hired. Before that, he had stolen books from four other libraries as far back as 1986.

Burius stole the library cards as well as the books hoping that no-one would look for them. He also removed marks from the books that identified them as the property of the Royal Library.

Swedish police discovered he sold most of the books to the German auction house Ketterer Kunst for cash under an alias. They also found he had hidden stolen books in his home and the garage of a friend.

His colleagues were amazed Burius could afford to wear Armani suits and silk ties, smoke Cuban Cohiba cigars, and drive a Mercedes. However, none of them guessed he financed his lifestyle through the theft of antiquarian books such as Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi (The Harmony of the World), published in 1619.

According to The History Blog, after his arrest, his wife filed for divorce. The police released him on December 8, 2004, the police released him pending a court date and he went home, moved a mattress into his kitchen, cut the gas tube that led to his oven, and slit his wrists. “A random spark from his refrigerator thermostat ignited the gas, setting off a massive explosion which blew out the walls, injured 11 people and forced the evacuation of 44 of his neighbors.”

The first stolen book to be returned to the Royal Library by someone who had purchased it was Cornelius van Wytfliet’s Descriptionis Ptolemaicae Augmentum. A librarian at the Royal Library identified it in the possession of New York-based map dealer W. Graham Arader III, who had purchased it in 2003 from Sotheby’s for approximately $100,000.

He returned it to Sotheby’s, which had purchased the atlas from a London dealer. The auction house reimbursed Arader and returned it to the Royal Library. At the time of its return, Arader believed the atlas – one of only nine copies in the whole world – was worth about $450,000 and the combined worth of all fifty-six stolen books that had been sold was $9,000,000, as Patricia Cohen related in The New York Times article (“Swedes Find Stolen Atlas in New York”) in June of 2012.

“We could not be more thrilled that this national treasure has finally been returned,” said National Librarian Gunilla Herdenberg in a press release. “I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has helped us recover this irreplaceable work for the library’s collection and the Swedish cultural heritage.”

On Wednesday, July 24, 2013, Baltimore-based Bookseller Stephan Loewentheil returned two stolen antiquarian books worth approximately $255,000 combined to a representative of the Royal Library at a ceremony held in the office of the U.S. District Attorney in New York City, Patricia Cohen reported in The New York Times Art Beats blog (“National Library of Sweden to Recover Stolen Books”) and A.M.C. Knutsson reported (in greater detail) in a blog post (“Royal Library of Sweden celebrates the return of two rare manuscripts”). The two books Loewentheil returned were the 19th Century German-language book Das illustrirte Mississippithal by Henry Lewis and the 17th Century French-language book Description de la Louisiane by Louis Hennepin.

In 1998, Loewentheil purchased these books, not knowing they were stolen, through Ketterer Kunst. Six years later, in 2004, a researcher’s request to see the Das illustrirte Mississippithal led to the discovery that it and other books were missing.

When Loewentheil learnt he had purchased and re-sold stolen books, he re-purchased them at his own expense. Representing the Royal Library, Steven D. Feldman of the law firm Herrick, Feinstein LLP, stated, “Stephan Loewentheil’s decision to return these two cultural treasures to the Royal Library of Sweden should serve as an example for ethical book dealers and collectors in the United States and around the world. As Mr. Loewentheil demonstrated, these stolen books should be returned to the people of Sweden and the Royal Library, their true owner, and made available to the public. They should not be secreted away in private collections.”

Fifty-three books remain missing. Anyone who knows the whereabouts of the missing books should write Douglas Andersson Head of Security, The National Library of Sweden, P.O. Box 5039, SE - 102 41 Stockholm, Sweden.

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