Suspects but No Answers in Rare Book Theft at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library

Investigators from the Allegheny County, PA, District Attorney’s Office continue to remain silent on the theft of 314 rare books, folios, maps, and other items from the rare materials room at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, although one official there confirmed that “suspect(s) have been identified.”

Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
Via Wikimedia Commons

Investigators from the Allegheny County, PA, District Attorney’s Office continue to remain silent on the theft of 314 rare books, folios, maps, and other items from the rare materials room at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh (CLP), although one official there confirmed that “suspect(s) have been identified.” The thefts, discovered during an insurance appraisal last spring, were first made public in March. CLP released a full list of the missing items. No arrests have been reported, although law enforcement officials have said very little so far about the case. There is no word as to whether any of the materials have been recovered. Detectives asked the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA) to circulate the list of missing treasures among its members so they could alert authorities in Pittsburgh if any items are spotted in shops, Susan Benne, the organization’s executive director, said. The rare books in particular, she told LJ, would carry CLP markings on the spine or other labels, making them fairly easy to spot if a seller tried to interest a rare bookstore or dealer in buying these items. On the list of stolen items are ten volumes published before the year 1500 and many more from the 17th century. There is a first edition of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica by Isaac Newton, published in 1687, as well as a 1776 first edition of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Other notable items include a volume of Homer from 1561, an 1898 memoir from suffragette Elizabeth Cady Stanton called Eighty Years or More (1815–1897), a 1908 letter signed by William Jennings Bryan, and a lesson book from 1864 Richmond, VA, called The Confederate Reader: Containing Selections in Prose and Poetry as Reading Exercises for Children in the Schools and Families of the Confederate States. “This is a great loss to the Pittsburgh community,” Suzanne Thinnes, CLP’s manager for communications, said in a widely released statement that has been the library’s lone public comment on the matter. “Trust is a very important component of what we do on a daily basis and we take very seriously the security of all collections.” Thinnes added, “As of now, suspect(s) have been identified and additional details will be shared by the District Attorney’s office at a later date.” Asked about the police investigation, Mike Manko, the chief spokesman for the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, said only, “I wouldn’t have any comment on that.” There remained no word as to when law enforcement officials would go public with more information on the CLP theft. Thinnes’s statement said, “We look forward to sharing our story once legal proceedings are complete.”

A breach of trust

Rare materials are housed in Carnegie Library’s Oliver Room, located on the third floor of the main branch in Pittsburgh’s Oakland neighborhood. WPXI in the city reported that the Oliver Room is under constant camera surveillance and only a few library employees are ever granted access. “The staff member responsible for the collection is no longer employed by the library,” Thinnes said in her statement. A report by Smithsonian.com said the room was ordered closed off in April as a crime scene. “We are deeply saddened by this breach of trust,” Thinnes said. “The theft occurred over an extended period of time by knowledgeable individual(s). The items would be of value to a limited number of collectors. For recovery purposes and due to pending litigation, we cannot provide an exact value of the missing materials.” There have been three other high-profile cases of rare book crimes since 2004. That year, the former chief of manuscripts at the National Library of Sweden was discovered to have stolen and sold 50 rare volumes from that institution. A year later, E. Forbes Smiley gained lasting notoriety in the library community. Smiley was a respected dealer in maps who was caught red-handed with an X-Acto knife at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. For several years, it was later found out, Smiley had been slicing pages out of some of the most valuable map books in the United States. The suspect was a longtime donor to the university who had easy access to the rare materials. Mario Massimo de Caro also earned a prominent spot in this library hall of thieves. De Caro was director of the renowned Girolamini Library in Naples, Italy. In April 2012, that library announced that 1,500 books were missing. Before too long, De Caro was arrested and charged with embezzlement along with four accomplices from Argentina and Ukraine. A more recent case of rare materials that turned up missing from a library turned out not to be a theft at all. In 2015, two valuable pieces of art could not be located at Boston Public Library’s (BPL) central branch. One was a Rembrandt etching, the other an Albrecht Dürer engraving from 1504. After then-BPL president Amy Ryan reported the items missing a police report was filed and an investigation followed, as well as a thorough internal review of the library’s security and collection management protocols. The items were eventually located; the artworks had been misfiled within BPL’s print stacks. Ryan, however, resigned one day before that discovery. The items missing from CLP from comprise “a major theft,” said Joyce Kosofsky, an authority on rare books and co-owner of Boston’s Brattle Book Shop, one of the country’s oldest and largest antiquarian booksellers. Having perused the list of stolen goods, she estimated the total value at “six to seven figures,” although she cautioned that much would depend on the exact condition of the materials when they were taken. Kosofsky said that in “absolute mint” condition, the Newton book alone would be worth $1.5 million. One item on the list of stolen goods intrigued Kosofsky, she said: a large folio by Edward S. Curtis called The North American Indian, published in 1907. From the list provided, she said it was unclear if the thief made off with just a single volume from the set or the entire series. The whole set, Kosofsky said, could be worth in excess of $2 million in suitably good condition. “It’s not a cohesive collection,” she said of the hundreds of missing books and items. “This runs multiple subjects. This is not for one person.” Kosofsky said there are many rare book experts across the nation eager to see the case solved and extremely curious to discover how the thief, or thieves, pulled off the crime. “Everyone wants to know the who, what, when and how,” she said.
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Posted : Apr 11, 2018 12:11


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