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Bandits, Crooks, and Swindlers: Famous Antiquarian Book Thieves

By Kristin Masters. Aug 9, 2012. 3:31 AM.

Topics: Rare Books, Book Collecting

As rare book collectors, we all know what it feels like to covet a particular rare edition or antiquarian volume. For rare book thieves, that desire isn't the only motivation. Some do it for the profit, while others do it because they feel the books have been somehow abandoned in the vastness of institutional libraries.

Rare Books

Rare books like this edition of The Jumping Frog
by Mark Twain are often targets of rare book thieves. 

For centuries these "gentleman thieves'" crimes got swept under the rug, as libraries didn't want to admit that they've been victims of theft. But in recent years, libraries, dealers, and auction houses have made great strides in detecting and preventing theft, largely because they are more willing to communicate openly. Here's a look at some recent rare book thieves who've been caught red handed.

  • Stephen Blumberg stole more than 23,000 rare and antiquarian books from universities and museums throughout the United States and Canada. He was arrested in 1990, after stealing $5.3 million in documents. Blumberg's crimes--and the vast resulting collection--earned him dubious recognition as the most well-known bibliomane. He truly believed that he was saving the items he stole from abandonment or destruction.
  •  John Charles Gilkey has stolen over $200,000 in rare documents and books. He wanted to build a personal library full of expensive editions because he saw that as a sign of high social standing. Gilkey used stolen credit card numbers and bad checks to purchase rare books from dealers all over the world. He's been convicted multiple times, with a record reaching from the 1990's to 2010. Gilkey's crimes are even chronicled in The Man Who Loved Books too Much.
  • William Jacques was most recently arrested in 2009 after stealing a 12-volume set of illustrated books from the Royal Horticultural Society's Lindley Library. Nicknamed the "tome raider," Jacques stole over £1m in rare and antiquarian books from the British Library.
  • Convicted the same year as Jacques, David Slade stole 68 books from the family collection of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. The former president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association sold the volumes to an auction house where he'd built significant trust over the years. Most of the books Slade stole were 19th- and 20th-century works from private presses.
  • Sometimes book thieves steal only parts of books. Such was the case with Farhad Hakimzadeh, who stole pages from about 150 volumes from the British and Bodleian libraries. Often these pages are worth almost as much as the intact volumes themselves--and removal of individual pages is more difficult to detect. Twelve years before, Hakimzadeh had also stolen a significant quantity of rare books from the Royal Asiatic Society. He paid the RAS so that details of the crime would not be sent through the international library alert system.

Protecting Yourself from Purchasing Stolen Books

Librarians, dealers, and other experts are constantly working to prevent rare book theft. As a collector, you can support their efforts--which in turn will reduce your risk of buying stolen materials.

It's often difficult to trace rare books because they bear no permanent marks of ownership. After all, the British Library doesn't stamp all the antiquarian books in its possession! Most experts who must make these identifying marks may use pencil, which can easily be removed with gum eraser. So how do you know a book is stolen?

The easiest way is to keep an eye on the stolen book bulletins of organizations like the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). These lists will familiarize you with titles that have been recently stolen, so that you can proceed with caution of you encounter them under unusual circumstances.

More importantly, buy from a dealer whom you thoroughly trust, and who can provide background information on the provenance of any especially rare items you're buying. A reputable dealer should be willing to provide enough details about how a book was acquired, so that you feel confident in your purchase.

Kristin Masters
Master Content Brain. You think it, she writes it, no good thought remains unposted. Sprinkles pixie dust on Google+, newsletters, blog, facebook, twitter and just about everything else.


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