12 Tales of Book Thievery


As devoted book lovers and defenders of libraries, there are few things that upset us more than people who steal books. We read about a recent case of book theft in China this week, detailed after the jump, which compelled us to explore a brief history of shocking book thievery. Greed, desperation, and delusion have compelled ordinary citizens and literary insiders to snatch rare books and manuscripts for dubious purposes. Most of these stories about stolen titles read like a gripping thriller, but the following tales of book theft are sadly all too real.

Photo credit: John Meckley

In humanity’s quest for the ever-elusive meaning of life, people have done some extreme and downright stupid things in search of an answer. Take a man in Nanjing, China, for example. He stole 800 science, history, and poetry books. “I couldn’t comprehend the meaning of life,” the thief known only as Mr. Lee claimed. “I was hoping to find the answer by reading those books.” Lee swiped the texts from his local bookstore over a span of six months, often combing the stacks up to four times a week. He would sell the books after reading them. It’s hard to believe that in those thousands of pages Lee didn’t learn stealing was wrong.

The Romm Gang sound like characters from a Scorsese film, but the criminals were a group of book thieves that operated into the 1930s. The gang lifted collectible titles from library shelves and sold them off to the highest bidder on New York’s Book Row. Respected antiquarian Charles Romm had questionable connections to the bookish thugs. A coveted copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems was one of the rarest snatched by the Romm Gang. Libraries responded by taking titles off the shelves, hiring security, and adding unique markings to books that would be difficult to remove. Eventually New York Public Library special investigator G. William Bergquist took over the case, bringing the thieves to justice. You can read more about the Romm Gang in Travis McDade’s Thieves of Book Row: New York’s Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It .

The Lambeth Palace Library was founded in 1610 and is “the historic library and record office of the Archbishops of Canterbury and the principal repository of the documentary history of the Church of England.” It’s also the site of a staggering case of book thievery. Nearly 1,400 tomes were taken from Lambeth, including a rare French text from the late 1500s — one of only six or seven surviving copies in the world. Librarians had been aware of the missing titles since the 1970s, believing only 90 books were gone, but in 2011 they discovered something shocking. The books were hidden away in a London attic. The now deceased thief — someone “associated with the library” — made a full confession. Lambeth is currently working on restoring the titles to their proper condition.

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Stephen Blumberg is perhaps the most famous bibliomane in history. He struggled with a compulsion to steal and hoard books, swiping more than 23,600 titles, worth $5.3 million total. Blumberg, who had a history of mental illness, truly believed he was saving the texts from destruction. Although he frequently stole antiques for money, he never sold his books. Blumberg was imprisoned for his crimes, but has been up to his old tricks since his release in the 1990s. Throughout his thieving career, Blumberg’s rarest steals include a first edition copy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and titles from the Zamorano Eighty — a list of first editions about the history of California.

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It’s our opinion that stealing pages from books is just as wicked as stealing the books themselves. Farhad Hakimzadeh ripped off the British Library page by page. Hakimzadeh has been described as a wealthy businessman, academic, and published author and rare book collector, but his experience, knowledge, and privilege didn’t stop him from taking a scalpel to the library’s rarest texts (around 150 total). A map worth $45,000 and several books dating back to the 16th century were found in his home. No one could confirm why Hakimzadeh dissected the books, but it seems the thief was trying to chart the path of European travelers through Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Mogul (Mughal) empire.

John Charles Gilkey proved that there is such a thing as loving books too much. He snatched $200,000 in rare books and manuscripts, which he obtained with stolen credit cards and bad checks. An employee at Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco, Gilkey tried to construct a new identity for himself — one that exuded wealth, culture, and sophistication. He surrounded himself with stolen first editions by Nabokov, Mark Twain, and others to feed his fantasy. Journalist Allison Hoover Bartlett wrote about Gilkey’s case in The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession .

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Raymond Scott was the playboy of book thieves. The recently deceased antiques dealer was sentenced to prison for handling stolen property — in this case, a copy of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays. The collection was printed several years after the Bard’s death, and there are reportedly fewer than 250 copies in the world. Scott concocted a bizarre story about stumbling upon the First Folio in Cuba through a pal of his nightclub dancer girlfriend. Scott’s flamboyant lifestyle didn’t help detract attention from his wrongdoings. Upon arrest he stated: “I’m an alcoholic and need two bottles of top-of-the-range champagne every day, but only after 6pm. I hope you have some in the police station.” He attended court dressed as Che Guevara, drove a yellow Ferrari, and handed out bow ties and cake to people around him. Scott denied stealing the folio even after imprisonment, but made a confession of sorts in an interview with his biographer:

“It wasn’t kept in a bank vault — it was openly kept on a book shelf and lovingly cherished. Then maybe the person fell in love and thought it’s time to realize an asset. Perhaps this person decided to live one day as a lion rather than spend his days as a lamb. To live life to the full in Havana, London, Paris. You can’t do this without money, without a lot of money. This is just a fairy story, of course.”

Nicknamed the “Tome Raider,” William Jacques stole over $150 million worth of books from UK libraries, which started going missing in the 1990s. He managed to trick the most prestigious auction houses in the world to sell his stolen copies of works by Thomas Paine, Galileo and Robert Boyle. After his first imprisonment, Jacques adopted a disguise and pseudonym to steal titles by Charles Darwin and Edward Lear. He claimed they were for research. Several books were never recovered, including thirteen volumes of Nouvelle Iconographie des Camellias by 19-century Belgian writer Ambroise Verschaffelt.

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The ultimate betrayal for antiquarians is finding out that one of their own plundered a collection of rare titles for selfish profit. A UK book dealer named David Slade stole 68 books from the Sir Evelyn de Rothschild family library. Instead of cataloguing the collection, he was pocketing the wealthy family’s titles and selling them at auction. Slade blamed financial debt for his thievery. Works by Louis Dupré, Chaucer, and T.E Lawrence were amongst the rare gems ripped from the Rothschild shelves.

Photo credit: Cecily Markland

Retired bookstore owner Helen Schlie is the proud owner of a first-edition Book of Mormon. It is believed to be one of the first 200 copies printed back in 1830. Mormons travel to see Schlie and the book, hoping to touch it or have their photo taken with it. The copy is estimated to be worth $100,000 and was taken from an unlocked cabinet in Schlie’s shop. Schlie was heartbroken when the book went missing, but even more so when it was discovered that someone she knew tried to sell its pages to a dealer. Jay Michael Linford was sentenced to prison for the crime. He previously published a book of Schlie’s poetry.

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Theologian and librarian Dr. Elois Pichler created a special coat to steal books from the Russian Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg where he worked. When he was finally caught in 1871, it was estimated he had stolen 4,000 books, many of them rare. Pichler would tuck them into his overcoat, which had a special sack sewn into the lining. The disgraced librarian was sentenced to exile in Siberia — hopefully with his overcoat, sans books.

Italian count and mathematician Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja was appointed Inspector of Libraries in France, but used his position of power to steal from the libraries instead of protecting them. Not one for subtlety, he tried to flee to England with 18 trunks containing 30,000 rare books and manuscripts. Some of the stolen titles were never recovered, but one document resurfaced over 150 years later. In 2010, a 1641 letter written by French philosopher René Descartes was returned to France after being discovered in the Haverford College library. The widow of an alumnus donated it to the school, but a Utrecht philosopher traced the document’s origins after connecting the dots back to the famous Libri case.