‘You must guard your own henhouse and often from your own foxes’

Book trade calls for self-policing as library thefts are growing problem

The old saying that every good book or manuscript has probably been stolen at least once was repeated throughout the conference Written Heritage of Mankind in Peril: Theft, Retrieval, Sale and Restitution of Rare Books, Maps and Manuscripts, held in London at the British Library on 26 June. The event, organised in collaboration with the UK’s Institute of Art & Law and the Art Law Commission of the International Association of Lawyers, brought together librarians, antiquarian booksellers, auction houses and lawyers to discuss the growing issue of thefts from libraries.

Thefts of rare books, maps and manuscripts from libraries are a growing, global problem. The portable nature of these works and the fact that many libraries lack up-to-date catalogues of their sizable collections—some of which were assembled centuries ago—make them prime targets. Two weeks before the conference, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France announced that several 16th- and 17th-century engravings by Brueghel as well as atlases dating from the 16th to 18th centuries had been stolen from its collection. An investigation is currently underway.

That the French library made the theft known to the public immediately is remarkable in itself. Many institutions are “too embarrassed” to report missing objects, said Stephan Loewentheil, the owner of the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop in Brooklyn, New York, and Stevenson, Maryland. He told how a museum still has not owned up to the theft of a series of heritage photographs that he facilitated the return of a few years ago. The assumption is that if a work is stolen it is the result of a breakdown in the institution’s security, a view criticised by Sharon Cohen Levin from the international law firm WilmerHale. “Saying it’s a security issue is a bit like blaming the victim,” she said.

Inside job

“It’s interesting to note that three of the biggest thefts over the past 15 years have been perpetrated by staff,” said Margaret Lane Ford, the international head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s. She was referring to those at the Girolamini Library in Naples, the National Library of Sweden and the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen. The Naples thefts were orchestrated by the former director of the Italian library, who received a seven-year sentence. Trusted department heads were behind the Scandinavian thefts—one of whom was able to buy a flat with the money he received from the sale of the rare books. The fact that all three were insider jobs led one audience member to suggest that the problem could be solved by simply paying library staff more, a remark which drew widespread laughter from the crowd.

The need for the trade to police itself was stressed by Loewentheil, who was instrumental in recovering books stolen from the National Library of Sweden. At his own expense he bought books back from clients once he realised they were stolen and donated them to the library. He said the trade needs to be diligent about checking the provenance of books and that signs that an owner’s stamp has been removed should not be ignored. “I often see circular cut-outs on title pages of books. Should we just assume it was attacked by a laser from outer space?” he asked. The high prices these books can command at auction had led some not to carry out proper due diligence. “You must guard your own henhouse and often from your own foxes,” he said.