A Visit to the Shadowy World of Rare Book Theft
The Seedy Underbelly of Antiquarian Bookselling
The problem with planning a rare books heist, it seems to me, is not so much the theft itself, which anyone possessed of a little dexterity and a decent tote bag ought to be able to pull off, but rather converting your hard work and criminal ingenuity into cash money. The trade is just too cloistered. Nearly all the dealers know one another and are familiar with rival inventories, especially when it comes to the most valuable items. And for those not firmly entrenched in the loop, there’s the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers’ Stolen Books Database, which provides dealers across the globe with regular updates as to what’s been nicked, so that none of them is put in the awkward position of fencing a colleagues’ goods. It’s a simple, reliable system, and in my recent reporting from the periphery of antiquarian literary circles, I’ve sometimes wondered whether it isn’t the main thing keeping me from a life of crime. I understand the urge, after all. The books are often beautiful, pleasant to handle, and valued at the kind of exorbitant sums that make me think of all the other books I might obtain if only I had a little coin in my pocket. That’s how they get you hooked, I suppose.
This past June, two new items appeared on the Stolen Books list: Antioci Tiberti’s treatise on palm-reading, printed in 1528; and the short dialogues of Symphorien Champier and Hadrian Barlandus, published in 1519 and bound in “blind-stamped calf” by Jacob Clercx de Geel, of Antwerp. Their combined value, according to later reports, is in the neighborhood of $20,000. The contact for both listings was Mr. Fabrizio Govi, who has offices in Modena, Italy and New York City.
The database, however, didn’t offer any of the good stuff—the who, what, where, how and why the books were stolen. Most likely the circumstances of the heist would have remained an obscure and mostly unfretted over mystery if four photographs hadn’t recently surfaced in New York City.
On September 12th, the NYPD 19th Precinct released four still images from a security video showing a man perusing the PRPH Rare Books gallery on 64th Street, near Central Park. The man is dressed in slim red slacks and a button down shirt, with a pair of sunglasses hanging at the chest—suitable attire for spring on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. The NYPD’s message said the man was wanted for “Grand Larceny of (2) antique books,” and asked the public to call in with any tips.
After a few weeks and some amused reporting from the New York press, the man in the photos was identified as one Gavriel Hundiashvili, an Israeli fashion photographer living in Queens. According to the Post, Hundiashvili tried to sell the books at another rare bookshop but ran into the problem I mentioned before, about the insular book world and how all the dealers know which goods are hot. Stymied and under pursuit, Hundiashvili (allegedly) mailed the books back to PRPH, the scene of the crime. All the same, the NYPD arrested him in October and charged him with felony larceny.
* * * *
The recent history of book crime is replete with double agents, well-informed opportunists and aristocrats. In 2004, Anders Burius, the former chief of manuscripts at Sweden’s Royal Library, was found to have stolen and sold over 50 rare volumes from the library’s collection. In 2005, a respected dealer in maps named E. Forbes Smiley (of the Vineyard Forbes) was found in Yale’s Beinecke Library with an exacto knife. For several years, it turned out, he’d been taking advantage of his professional reputation (and his many generous donations) to remove an untold number of pages from the country’s most valuable map books. And perhaps most notoriously, Marino Massimo de Caro, an autodidact appointed to head up the Girolamini Library in Naples, was caught systematically plundering his and other libraries of their most cherished items. He’s also acknowledged using his access to the rare volumes to engage in a lucrative forgery ring that ultimately ensnared the Vatican’s own library, as well as several world-class antiquarian experts.
There are many other examples—bold and even dashing figures. The aspiring Thomas Crownes. Gavriel Hundiashvili, at first glance anyway, does not appear to be one of them.
But, earlier this fall, I made my way to New York City’s Criminal Court, at 100 Centre Street in Chinatown. Hundiashvili was scheduled to appear in Part F, the courtroom reserved for felony cases awaiting the convening of a grand jury and indictment. Part F is an orderly, bustling place. There are no cell phones and no children allowed, and over the course of a morning, the judge, assistant district attorney, clerks and bailiffs manage to work through two or three dozen cases.
There’s no telling precisely when a case will be heard in Part F—the wait could be a matter of minutes or several hours—so I brought along a notepad and began making a list of the books I’ve been tempted by over the years, from a rare copy of The Pickwick Papers recently shown to me by a dealer in New Jersey, to a first printing of Rabbit, Run that I remembered spotting on the shelves of the American Library in Paris many years ago, one winter when I was short on funds.
Finally, after two hours of waiting, I stepped outside the courtroom, into the lobby where the cell phones and children are kept waiting, and noticed Hundiashvili at the end of a row of wooden chairs. The shaved head and elegant clothes stood out, as they had in the surveillance footage. His legs were tightly crossed and head bowed. He seemed to be having one of the worst mornings of his life. I thought about what I might say to give him a little comfort, but before I could, his lawyer appeared and reminded Hundiashvili not to speak to anyone. The lawyer was looking at me as he said it, and I’ll admit the remark wounded me some. In any case I stuck around and drank another coffee and tried to find in Hundiashvili some trace of E. Forbes Smiley or Massimo de Caro, that streak of literary charlatanry that would make reporting on such a story—for lack of a better word—fun. Despite the shaved head and stylish shoes, I couldn’t find it.
Before I left, I noticed a new attorney giving Hundiashvili his card. He was an older man and seemed to be on cordial terms with everyone around Part F—the clerks, the judge, the women pushing mail carts down the hall. His voice carried easily, and I could hear him from a ways off, telling Hundiashvili to call anytime, day or night, and not to worry, things would work out just fine.
* * * *
The rare books world is rife with informational imbalances. They are, in a sense, the primary engine of the trade. Dealers pour substantial scholarship into tracing a book’s lineage and proving its unique and valuable characteristics, then release just enough of that information to pique the curiosity, and oftentimes the skepticism, of a select cadre of rabid book collectors. This routine tends to require travel to cities like Nimes, Padua, Paris, Rome and Lisbon, where bindings, paper sources, ex libris and watermarks are examined by the industry’s savants. It also requires discretion, as well as a demeanor that some would call evasive and others coy.
It didn’t come as any great surprise, therefore, that I had a hard time getting hold of Umberto Pregliasco and Filippo Rotundo, the owners of PRPH, the rare books gallery where the 1528 Champier and the 1519 Tiberti were stolen. (Incidentally, Mr. Rotundo’s representatives have denied reports that he was an associate of Marino Massimo de Caro, the autodidact who looted the Girolamini Library in Naples and forged many masterpieces.) Nor was it out of step with my sense of how business is conducted in the industry’s more exalted circles when, seemingly out of the blue, I received a call from an Italian woman named Francesca (Biffi, I learned—PRPH vice president), who said there would be a little party at the gallery the following week, and would I like to come?
It had all the markings of a set up, a sting. I had to remind myself: I’d done nothing wrong.
The PRPH gallery occupies the third floor of an elegant brownstone on East 64th Street. The decor is modern: white walls and track lighting, a few display cases, two surrealist mannequins with cubby holes carved into the chests and trays laid out from the hips. There were 30 or 40 people there the evening I went by, a mix of Upper East Side mavens, tweedy academics, and Italians dressed in well-tailored black. The room was boiling and everyone was drinking cold white wine.
There were several questions I had hoped to ask the owners of PRPH—about the scourge of book crime and security measures put into place since the theft, about Mr. De Caro, and about the true worth of the stolen books, one of which, the 1528 Champier, was being reported at a value of $15,509: the same figure the government seemed to be using to prosecute Mr. Hundiashvili for grand larceny in the third degree, rather than a lesser charge, although it seemed to my inexpert eye that the same (or perhaps only a similar?) book was listed at auction last year at a value of €1,000-1,200. Most of all I wanted a look at the books—the Champier and the Tiberti. I wanted to get up close and possibly hold them in my own two hands, so that I could understand just a little better.
Unfortunately, the occasion never arose. Earlier that day, when I’d called to confirm the party details, Ms. Biffi told me that PRPH had decided they no longer wished to speak about the theft. It was an unfortunate incident, one they preferred to leave in the past. I could understand that, couldn’t I? I could. The story had already been reported, in the Times, in a rather agreeable light.
And so I attended the party merely to observe, not to question. Luckily, there’s a good deal worth seeing at PRPH, even aside from the surrealist mannequins and the Italians in black. On the back wall was a Puritan exposition of the Ten Commandments printed in 1617 by William Brewster. There was also a 1623 edition of Il Saggiatore, the book in which Galileo first laid out the scientific method. The list prices for both contained six figures. I could only locate one security camera, near the center of the room, pointed at the door. I’m sure there were others.
The star of the evening was a 1516 edition of Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, which is apparently considered a book collector’s “black tulip.” Its display at PRPH was kicking off a week of events to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the printing. The book was kept in a case, under lock and key, and propped open so that guests could examine the pages. Experts had deemed PRPH’s copy to be the so-called “Cavalieri” Orlando Furioso, long considered lost. Nobody said anything about a price. I can only imagine the rigmarole that goes into such a sale.
The Champier and the Tiberti were nowhere in sight.
After I had drunk my wine and observed what there was to observe, I cut through the sweaty crowd, past the priceless artifacts and toward the elevator doors. But before leaving, I stopped to talk with Professor Neil Harris, of l’Università degli Studi di Udine, who had been called in to authenticate the Orlando Furioso. He was wearing a pumpkin-colored sports coat, and earlier in the evening, as he was delivering some remarks on his craft, he’d reminded me very much of a detective summoned to a country manor to solve a murder. I told him as much, and he seemed to like the comparison. “It does have a bit of Sherlock Holmes to it,” he said.
I also mentioned a term I’d heard him using before—typographical facsimilist—and how it had caught my attention, since he’d used it, with great admiration it seemed, to describe the work of 19th-century artisans who created replica pages to be inserted into ancient, incomplete texts. There are legitimate reasons, I’m sure, why someone might want to have a replica page painstakingly crafted and slipped into an ancient text, but the financial reasons come far more readily to mind, and so the question naturally arises, or anyway it arose in me, and I asked Prof. Harris: is there a meaningful difference between a typographical facsimilist, a forger and a thief?
“Oh yes,” Prof. Harris said. “The facsimilist is just that. If anyone, the book’s owner is the forger.”
A fair point. Inchoate acts ought to be judged less harshly, and skilled labor is always deserving of respect. A true forgery occurs only when the phony is passed off as the real, just as a theft requires the midday shopper, or the covetous party-goer, to actually cross the threshold with his loot.
So what about these owners with their replica pages? Whether they were fooling their fellow collectors, posterity, or only themselves, couldn’t we throw in their lot with the common thieves?
“You have to remember,” Prof. Harris said. “The ethics change from century to century.”
Another subtlety. My thoughts drifted back to Mr. Hundiashvili and the $20,000 books, to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers’ Stolen Books Database and to Part F of the New York City Criminal Court in Chinatown, where there are no children and no cell phones allowed.
In another century or so, it might all appear quite strange.
I wiped the sweat from my forehead and thanked Prof. Harris for the enlightening conversation. There were questions still unanswered, but they would have to stay that way, I decided, at least for the night.
Outside the townhouse, I found the air had changed since I went up. A cool breeze was starting to blow over the city. I walked across 64th Street on the dark side of the road, past the lavish buildings, hands buried deep in my pockets, feeling very much like a man who had gotten away with something.