Art theft

Art theft: Olé, oy vey!

Fake rabbis rob Spanish monastery

In July, a “rabbi” and three Israeli accomplices gained entry to the library of the Monserrat Monastery claiming that their research required them to photograph rare documents. The monks later noticed that nine Hebrew and Arabic medieval manuscripts had been stolen. When the “rabbi” and his colleagues returned to the monastery on 2 September, the monks were quick to improvise an undercover operation. After welcoming the Israelis to the library, the monks notified the police.

When the “rabbi” and his party tried to leave the monastery, they were discovered to be concealing five Hebrew and Latin manuscripts and were charged with theft. Israeli sources later cast doubts on the rabbinic credentials of the ringleader, Eliahu Zeituni, who turned out to be a shoe salesman. So far the documents stolen in July have not been returned and the thieves went back to Israel.

Meanwhile in the US, a scholar with privileged access to the Vatican Library was arrested and charged with theft. His trial raises new concerns about security and the breach of scholarly trust

In August Anthony J. Melnikas, sixty-nine, pleaded guilty to eight felony charges involving the loss of seven fourteenth-century manuscripts.

The Vatican Library thefts came to light when Melnikas, seeking to raise money for his imminent retirement after thirty-six years at Ohio State University, approached the dealer Bruce Ferrini in Akron (Ohio) in 1994 with two illuminated manuscript pages made for Petrarch, with marginal annotations in the poet’s own hand. Melnikas’s account of their provenance and the fact that the leaves had been crudely removed with a pen-knife raised eyebrows and the dealer notified the police. Melnikas was arrested and charged with smuggling and attempted sale of stolen property.

Under questioning, Melnikas handed over another page of the same volume to customs officers, and later admitted to removing pages of medieval documents in Spain, from the monastic and cathedral libraries of Toledo and Tolosa in the 1960s and 70s. A number of the pages had been used to decorate the walls of his home. Melnikas had special access to the Vatican Library and was permitted to work there ”virtually alone and unsupervised”, according to FBI agents.

An interesting secondary aspect of Melnikas’s case was that it involved prosecution under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, which was framed primarily to prevent the looting of Native American sites and the illicit sale of excavated objects, the sentences for which are calculated in commensuration to the market value of the object.

For the first time the law was used to prosecute a crime involving foreign origin. The court valued the stolen objects at $200,000, but were the sum higher, as many experts insist it should be, the professor could face more than ten years in gaol and $2 million in fines.

These episodes expose the threats to which collections are open, sadly from the very people most expected to respect their integrity. Many libraries simply lack the resources for security and have had to limit access to scholars as a protective measure. Now, following the discovery thefts by Melnikas and the “rabbinical” ring, scholars will find themselves under new scrutiny and subject to more restrictions.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 63 October 1996