Girolamini Ancient Library, Naples.
It recently came to light that London’s Lambeth Palace, home to an impressive historic library as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the scene of a ‘major crime’ that remained undetected for decades. In a sequence of events that might have read as the sensational formula of a Victorian mystery, a sealed letter was sent to the palace by an unfamiliar solicitor. Disclosed within, was the admission of a deceased, former employee of the library.
The employee confessed to the theft of numerous rare books, and the letter directed the staff of the library to their ex-colleague’s house in London. There, in the attic, they not only discovered many books that they knew to be missing, but countless more. ‘We were staggered,’ said Declan Kelly, the director of libraries and archives for the Church of England. ‘A couple of my colleagues climbed into the attic. It was piled high to the rafters with boxes full of books. I had a list of 60 to 90 missing books, but more and more boxes kept coming down.’
The library was directly hit by an incendiary bomb in the Second World War, which had devastating consequences for the collection. It was estimated that up to 10,000 books had been destroyed or irreparably damaged. In the decades that followed, it was assumed that if a book were found to be missing it was most likely a victim of the bomb. In the mid seventies, though, a librarian discovered that various volumes that were known to have survived were now missing. A police investigation ensued, but, given that none of the books ever came up for sale in the book trade, the mystery remained unsolved. Until recently, that is. Amongst the 1000 or so volumes recovered from the attic was an early edition of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two, finely illustrated books, including Theodor de Bry’s America, and medical books, such as The French Chirurgerye. If undamaged, America is valued at £150,000 and the Shakespeare, £50,000.
Sadly this is not an isolated case of book theft, nor is it the only one committed on this extraordinary scale. In January of this year, police in Italy apprehended a bookbinder for the suspected theft of hundreds of valuable books from the prestigious Girolamini library in Naples. The library’s director, amongst others, was also implicated in what has been described as the ‘systematic looting’ and worldwide trafficking of stolen books. The 450 year old library had been closed to the public for a while, but re-opened last spring. A scholar visiting the library’s collection was alarmed to discover that the library was half empty, and what was left, was in complete chaos. It is now thought that over 1,500 books were stolen. The director of the library was jailed for seven years, and police are working to track down the missing books.
Happily, though, book dealers are ever alert to the problem of theft in our trade. The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) maintains an online database for books reported stolen or missing. Whilst it has not always been possible to prevent theft, at least book dealers can work together to limit the possibility of profit by such a crime.