A blog about the arts, books, flora and fauna, vittles, and whatever comes to mind!

Note: Comments are moderated. If you include a link, your comment will not be published. As you will note, I do not accept ads on my website and that includes in comments.

Monday, January 31, 2011


This book advocates rebelling against authority, and
 has been referred to as reflecting the "yippie zeitgeist".

Bibliokleptomania has existed for as long as there have been biblios to klept.  Of course, it’s a lot easier to sneak a small paperback home than a large illuminated manuscript, but that’s only a small deterrent to a determined bibliokleptomaniac.  Scrolls could be easily hidden under robes, capes, and togas, and as for large tomes, well, where there is a will there is a way.

Take Dr. Elois Pichler.  He was a German librarian who worked in the Russian Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg.  In 1871 he was caught with around 4,000 volumes stolen from the library – the largest known amount of books stolen in Europe.  He had a large overcoat with a special sack in the lining.  He was an eclectic thief, and stole both rare volumes and ordinary books.  He was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to exile in Siberia, presumably without any books.

The Imperial Public Library in St. Peterburg, 1884, engraving by
De La Charlerie, image courtesy of this site.

I know the anguish of Don Vincente, although I don’t condone how he assuaged it.  He was a friar at a convent whose library was plundered during the reign of Queen Christina of Spain in 1834.  He went to Barcelona and established himself as a book dealer.  But he fell in love with his books and was only able to sell them when absolutely necessary.  When he was outbid at an auction for a copy of a rare and perhaps unique book, Ordinacions per los Gloriosos Keys de Arago, Don Vincente set the successful bidder’s house on fire, killing him but making it look as though the victim’s pipe caused the fire.  More mysterious murders followed.  Finally Don Vincente’s shop was searched.  The Ordinations volume was found there, which begged the question of how it escaped the fire.  Don Vincente finally confessed to all his murders, including customers to whom he had reluctantly sold books, and sought to get them back.  At his trial his defense lawyer claimed that there was a copy of Ordinations in the Louvre, so it wasn’t so unique, and there may be more copies.  At that Don Vincente cried.  Not at his heinous actions, but because the book was not unique.

Stephen Carrie Blumberg may have the distinction of being the greatest book thief in history.  Holding a high school diploma, he passed as a Professor Matthew McGue from the University of Minnesota at university libraries.  He, too, wore long coats with long pockets in the lining, but had many ways of stealing books.  He stole 23,600 rare books from 268 libraries, totaling a cost estimated to be $5.3 million.  He took very good care of them, housing them in an old house with floor to ceiling bookshelves.  To him it wasn’t stealing, but rather building a great collection of books.  To carefully remove the glue of the library card pockets, he would lick them.  He tried for 100 books a day, or until he got sick from the glue.  His lawyers unsuccessfully pled insanity, but to no avail.  I have to wonder if the glue impaired his brain.

Stanislas Gosse, in 2003, admitted to stealing over 1,000 volumes of rare books from the monastery library of Mont Sainte-Odile, which sits 2,500 feet up in the Vosges mountains of France.  Mont Sainte-Odile dates to the 7th century CE, dedicated to St. Odile of Alsace.  Remote, the monastery/convent is surrounded by the walls of the ruins of old fortifications.  Its buildings have been destroyed and rebuilt many times.  Gosse learned of a secret passage from medieval times through a map in the city archives that seemed to have been forgotten.  He climbed the walls, took the passage and entered the library from a bookcase that swung open.

Mont Sainte-Odile

Gosse was a local teacher, who couldn’t resist the thrill and challenges of the task.  When the missing books were first noticed, it was a big mystery since the library was locked and off limits to the public.  It was only after two years, and the boarding of windows and replacement of the locks, that the police figured out there must be another entrance.  When they found the swinging section of bookcase and the secret passage, they set up hidden cameras. 

Mont Sainte-Odile

They caught Gosse in the act and he was finally arrested with rope and three suitcases of books in hand.  In his apartment they found all the books he had taken.  He had taken good care of them, even restoring some of them.  He confessed to “the thrill of the chase”, and stated his concern was also for the books.  He felt they had been abandoned – no one was reading them, and they were covered with dust and pigeon poop. 

Gosse was a former naval officer, and a teacher at a local engineering school.  He was charged with “burglary by ruse and escalade”.  The archbishop and the head of Mont Sainte-Odile forgave him, and stated they would like to see him continue his work as a teacher.  The court granted him permission to teach, a suspended prison term, community service helping the monks catalog the books, and a fine of approximately $20,000.  Which doesn't answer the questions of why no one at Mont Sainte-Odile nor the police knew of the secret passage or bookcase, but documentation was available at the city archives for anyone to see.  And why did it take so long to get serious about finding the culprit?

Image showing the careful cutting of a book by Hakimzadeh.
Courtesy of the Guardian.

Farhad Hakimzadeh is a wealthy, Harvard-educated businessman, who was also a publisher and an intellectual.  He also took a scalpel to 150 books from the British Library and the Bodleian Library over seven years.  He stole maps, pictures, and some pages out of rare books so carefully that the damage is only visible to a trained eye who is looking for it.

Map taken by Hakimzadeh from a book in the British Library.
Image courtesy of the Guardian.

It all came to light when a reader reported the book he was looking at had missing pages.  After careful examination, it turned out to be true, and the search for who had done the damage and what other works might have suffered began.  They found that books from the same period of history about European encounters in the geographical area of Syria to Bangladesh were also damaged - books that Hakimzadeh had contact with.  Soon it was discovered that of the 842 books that he had taken out, at least 150 had been cut up. 

Dr. Kristian Jensen, head of British and Early Printed
Collections at the British Library, examines a book
with cut page.  Image courtesy of the Guardian.

Forensic scientists analyzed the books.  A search of his home revealed that he had inserted the stolen pages in his own books, and others were found loose.  One of the pages was worth close to $51,000.  Since he was an expert in the field from which the pages referred to, officials felt that makes his crime even worse, since he knew the value of what he took and the books he defaced.  He is currently being sued for full compensation, but that may be difficult to ascertain, as many of the pages have not been found.  So far he has been sentenced to two years in prison on criminal charges and fined $11,000 in court costs, but faces civil suits as well.

It is interesting to note that those afflicted with this mania are not from the criminal element but from respectable and educated backgrounds.  Some have had prior problems and/or convictions.  Libraries have traditionally dealt with theft and mutilation quietly, either out of embarrassment or not to give out ideas.   It is reported that in the Middle Ages curses were used as a safeguard against thievery.  There is a famous oft-quoted, curse that is sometimes believed to be from these times, but has proven not to be.  (Click here to see more about this curse and the comments about it.)  Another punishment that was issued from the Middle Ages through the 19th century was forcible exile.  In the latter years, in Britain that meant being sent to Australia, a punitive measure that equated book thieves with hardened criminals.

Librarians and bibliophiles alike have been outraged at this kind of behavior, feeling it gives bibliomania a bad connotation, rather than denoting someone with a passion for books.  Some book collectors see this extreme form of passion as a romantic, noble thing.  Bibliokleptomania is more than a passion, it is a mania, a mental illness.  Current thinking is to send a strong message and publicly address the thief.  More advanced security and prevention is also being sought.  It is sad that this is necessary, particularly at a time when libraries are so ill-funded.  These rare and unique books belong to us all, and it is a privilege to have access to them. So do we spend available monies purchasing more books, or spend it on protecting what we have from selfish and somewhat demented individuals?  Not an easy choice...


No comments:

Post a Comment