The raiders of rare books

Last Updated 29 August 2015, 18:30 IST
Why are we so fascinated by the bibliomania of biblioklepts (a person who steals books)? Are we drawn to bibliomania because they seem to say something about the nature of our relationship to books? That it is more intimate and more complex than we imagined?

I’m not talking here of fairly harmless biblioklepts; books nicked because someone was too poor to buy a book they needed or felt it had to be rescued and brought to light from some run-down library that didn’t care for it. But I talk of the biblioklepts of the book world for whom it is more than an obsession, where it’s a kind of madness exemplified best by Flaubert’s monk.

And then, of course, there are the professional book thieves who commit book crimes for profit. In May 2002, a naval officer named Stanislas Gosse was caught with three suitcases containing 300 ancient religious manuscripts and precious illuminated books that he had plundered over the years from various monasteries. He would sneak the volumes out at night, and his getaway vehicle was a bicycle!

And in January 2009, 60-year-old Iranian businessman and book collector Farhad Hakimzadeh was found stealing pages from rare books in the Bodleian library, UK. He had been doing this undetected for seven years. He was snipping out pages, he later said, to augment his own fine collection of antiquarian books. One of the pages he had cut out was a 500-year-old map worth 32,000 pounds. Before passing sentence on Hakimzadeh, the judge paused to say, “You have a deep love of books, perhaps so deep that it goes to excess.”

And the British press noted that Hakimzadeh “slowly nodded his head.” These men liked to call themselves ‘gentlemen thieves’; obsessed academics who offered their bibliomania as defence: that they were rescuing these books from being abandoned in libraries.

In 2005, a book thief who was also a master of disguise — William Jacques alias David Fletcher — was arrested for stealing books worth more than a million pounds from the London library. The most infamous book thief in history is probably Stephen Blumberg who stole 23,600 rare books from 268 libraries, estimated at 20 million dollars. Though he had only passed high school, he would masquerade as a professor in university libraries.

His modus operandi included wearing long coats with specially sewn long pockets inside and hiding in the library after it closed. He didn’t see it as stealing, he saw it as building a unique collection of books. At his trial he said he always meant to return them. He had preserved them carefully in an old house, storing the books in 180 bookcases that went from floor to ceiling. To get the glue off the library cards, he would lick them. He licked the glue off a hundred books a day and would stop only when he got sick.

His lawyers pleaded insanity as defence,  but the judges wouldn’t buy it. Librarians were outraged and felt Blumberg had given bibliomania a bad name. Some book collectors saw his passion for books as something noble, even romantic. The problem with both arguments is that they are too cut and dried.

Between 2001 and 2003, this was typically how the rare book thief John Gilkey operated: using stolen credit card numbers he would place the order over telephone and tell the bookstore that he was too busy to come himself and would be sending someone to pick up the book on his behalf. He would stroll into the bookshop a few hours later and ask for the book.

Only weeks later would the bookseller realise the charge was fraudulent. Among the many first or rare editions he stole were Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 ($3,500), Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim ($3,000), Samuel Beckett’s No’s Knife ($850), Kerouac’s On the Road ($4,500) and first editions of Winnie-the-Pooh. In all, perhaps books worth $200,000.

Now, what set Gilkey apart from most book thieves is that he did not steal for profit but to collect. He had come under the spell of first editions and fine books, and wanted to own them.

He didn’t have the means to buy them, so he helped himself to these books because he felt entitled to them. He didn’t think of it as stealing — he is quoted as saying that taking a book from a library would be stealing. Like other notorious biblioklepts, Stephen Blumberg and Gilkey stole for the love of books.

Author Allison Bartlett who wrote a book on Gilkey refers to an incident that happened on March 14, 2001, when he visited a well-known antiquarian bookstore in San Francisco and said, “I’m looking for a gift. Something in the $ 2,000 to 3,000 range.

The bookstore suggested a special two-volume set of The Mayor of Casterbridge, a first edition priced at $ 2,500. Gilkey then read his credit card number to the bookstore clerk and said he would pick up the book in the afternoon. The bookstore had it wrapped and ready to be picked up. A man rushed in later in the day, said he was in a hurry, and left with the book.

In the end, Bartlett notes that the bibliomania of rare book thieves reveals “people’s intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books.”

(Published 29 August 2015, 16:11 IST)

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