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Art theft

Christie's remove volumes from October sale to investigate links to Jagiellonian Library theft

Of the fifty one books that were stolen, nineteen have been recovered

London

Neither Polish authorities nor Christie’s ended up very happy over the October sale “Printing and the mind of man”.

Citing persistent rumours and unsubstantiated claims over provenance, Christie’s announced the withdrawal of one book: the star of the auction, a 1543 edition of Copernicus’s De revolutionibus, valued at £200,000 to £500,000. But without any announcement or explanation, Christie’s also withdrew a 1610 edition of Galileo’s Sidereus nuncius published in Venice and valued at £130,000. Observers noted that the withdrawal of the Galileo may not have been altogether inexplicable. It coincided, some said, with the arrival of special investigators from Poland.

The auction had already been disrupted by a Polish media campaign bordering on hysteria over the sale of the Copernicus volume. The presence of that book at Christie’s following the theft of nearly identical volumes in Cracow and Kiev was too much of a coincidence for the Polish media to bear. But the Polish experts had no difficulty in agreeing with Christie’s view that the book did not come from Poland, enabling the auction house to announce a new auction next spring.

The Polish experts, though, were less happy about the Galileo, recognising it as one of several books recently stolen from Cracow’s Jagiellonian University, founded in the 1400s and one of Poland’s most esteemed collections. In fact, the investigators did not discover the Galileo by chance. They had been alerted to it by the German auction house Reiss und Sohn, located near Frankfurt in Königstein an Taunus.

In Reiss’s auction catalogue, the Polish investigators had earlier found some ten to twenty lots which had been stolen from the Jagiellonian library. Although the books had provenances which fit the titles, the documents themselves had either been stolen or fabricated and did not match the actual books.

Reiss had checked the most precious of them—a 1482 edition of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia printed in Ulm and valued at some DM1.2 million—and believed that it had come from the Balkans, while it actually had come from Poland. Altogether, there were eighteen Polish books at Reiss. There had been nineteen: the Galileo that Reiss had just sent to Christie’s.

While Polish authorities are pleased to have identified the Galileo as belonging to the Jagiellonian, it seems they may still have to wait before taking it home. While they claim that the book came to Christie’s directly from Reiss in Germany, Christie’s claim that two other dealers stand between them and Reiss—one in the UK and the other in France.

Meanwhile, as that is being sorted out, Interpol reports that Poland ranks fifth in Europe’s league tables for art thefts, particularly for old prints and rare books. Many of these thefts are undertaken to meet the demands of Western collectors, the police say, especially from Germany. In April this year, the Jagiellonian library—from which the Galileo had been stolen—saw the disappearance of fifty-one books, nineteen of which have now been recovered—if the Galileo is included.

Stolen from the Jagiellonian Library in Cracow

Recovered (11)

-Dondus, Johannes, De medeicinis simplicibus Strassbourg, 1470

-Galilei, Galileo, Difesa contro alle calunnie Venezia, 1607

-Capra, Balthasar, Usus et fabrica circini Padova, 1607

-Capra, Balthasar, Tyrocinia astronomica Padova, 1606

-Capra, Balthasar, Consideratione astronomica Padova, 1605

-Capra, Balthasar, Disputationes duae Padova, 1606

-Galilei, Galileo, Le operazioni del compaso geometrico Padova, 1606

The above six were bound together

-Galilei, Galileo, Il saggiatore Roma, 1623

-Galilei, Galileo, Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle machie solari Roma, 1613

-Galilei, Galileo, Sidereus nuncius Venezia, 1610. Found in London.

-Kepler, Johannes, Narratio de observatis a se quatur Iovis satellitibus Frankfurt a. M., 1611. Found in Germany.

The above were bound together

-Galilei, Vincentio, Dialogo della musica Foirenze, 1602

-Kepler, Johannes, Harmonices mundi libri V Linz, 1619

-Kepler, Johannes, Prodromus Frankfurt, 1621

-Kepler, Johannes, Pro suo opere Harmonices mundi apologia Frankfurt, 1622

The above three were bound together

-Ptolemaeus, Claudius, Cosmographia Roma, Petrus de Turre, 1490

-Ptolemaeus, Claudius, Cosmographia Ulm, Leonard Holl, 1482

-Vesalius, Andreas, De humani corporis fabrica Basel, 1555

-Vesalius, Andreas, Anatomia Universa antiquorum anatome Venezia, 1604

Still missing (32)

-Bessarion Nicolaus, Adversus calumniatorem Platonis Roma, Conradus Sweynheim et Arnoldus Pannartz, before 13 IX 1469

-Biblia cum Postillis Nicolai de Lyra Strassburg, Ioannes Grninger, 1492

-Bloch, Marc Elieser, Ichtylogie Berlin, 1797. (Only the illustrated catalogue accompanying the work)

-Galilei, Galileo: Tres epistolae de maculis solaribus Augsburg, 1612

-Isidorus, Hispalensis, Etymologiae Ausburg, G. Zainer, 1472

-Kepler, Johannes, Ad Vitellionem paralipomena Frankfurt, 1604

-Kepler, Johannes, Astronomia nova Heidelberg, 1609

-Kepler, Johannes, Dissertatio cum nuncio sidereo Praha, 1610

-Kepler, Johannes, Nova stereometria Linz, 1615

-Kepler, Johannes, Phaenomenon singulare seu Mercurius in Sole Leipzig, 1609

-Kepler, Johannes, Tabulae Rudolphinae Ulm, 1627

-Montagnana Bartholomaeus, Consilia medica Padova, P. Maufer, 1476

-Munster, Sebastian, Cosmographia C. 1628

-Plautus, Comoediae, Venezia, Vindelinus de Spira, 1472

-Ptolomaeus, Claudius, Geographia, Basel, 1540

-Gerbelius, Nicolaus, In descriptionem Graeciae Sophiani praefatio etc. Basel, 1540

The above two bound together

-Ptolomaeus, Claudius, Geographia Basel, 1542

-Solinus, Polihistor Basel, 1534

-Vadianus, Joachimus, Epitome trium terrae partium Asiae, Africae et Europae Zurich, 1534

The above three bound together

-Ptolemaeus, Claudius, Cosmographia Vicenza, H. Liechtenstein, 1475

-Ptolemaeus, Claudius, Cosmographia Vicenza, H. Liechtenstein, 1475.

-Ptolemaeus, Claudius, Cosmographia Ulm, J. Reger, 1486

-Ptolemaeus, Claudius, Cosmographia, Ulm, J. Reger, 1486

-Ptolomaeus, Claudius, Geographia Basel, 1522

-Seligmann, Jean Michel, Recueil de divers oiseaux colories Nurnberg, 1768

-Schwabenspiegel (landrechtbuch). Augsburg, Günter Zeiner, 1475/6

-Rodericua (Sanctius) Zamorensis, Spiegel des menschlichen Lebens Augsburg, Günter Zeiner, 1475/8

The above two were bound together

-Ulricus de Reichental, Concilium zu Costanz Augsburg. A. Sorg, 1483

-Vesalius, Andreas, De humani corporis fabrica Köln, 1600-1601

-Zeiller, Martin, Topographia Alsatiae Frankfurt, 1644

-Zeiller, Martin, Topographia Electoratus Branderburgici et Ducatus Pomeraniae Frankfurt, 1652

-Zeiller, Martin, Topographia Bohemiae, Moraviae et Silesiae Frankfurt, 1650

Plus seven atlases and Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium Nuremberg, 1543

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Fifty-one taken, nineteen recovered'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 98 December 1999