Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2009 Issue

A Stiff Prison Sentence for Book Theft: Equal Justice for All?

Spiderman2

The Amazing Spider-Man was not able to prevent himself from being stolen.


By Michael Stillman

We have seen several high profile book theft cases come down in recent years. The target is often a library, in particular, the rare book room. Some people simply stuff a book or pamphlet in a briefcase and walk out. Others, even more ominously, slice the pages, plates, or maps out of rare books. This is even more egregious, in our opinion, as it can take years, if ever, before the library realizes something is missing, and when it does, it finds that the work has been irretrievably damaged.

Perhaps the most notable case in recent years was that of E. Forbes Smiley, the Martha's Vineyard map seller who stocked his inventory by slicing maps out of antiquarian books in such places as the Yale and Harvard University Libraries, the New York and Boston Public Libraries, the Newberry Library and British Library. Smiley admitted to stealing 97 items, though some suspect he stole more. The value of the items stolen by this upper crust map seller exceeded $2 million. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years in prison.

The British Library expressed outrage at the leniency of Smiley's sentence, though they did not seem so troubled by the case of Farhad Hakimzadeh, sentenced in Britain recently. Hakimzadeh was an Iranian scholar who liked to collect as well as write about books in his specialty. Unfortunately, he didn't always like to pay for them. He conducted numerous thefts at the British and Bodleian (Oxford) Libraries. He too used a knife to extract certain pages from the books, leaving them permanently defaced. The value of the items he stole has been estimated at $1.5 million. He was sentenced to 2 years in prison last January. On appeal a few weeks ago, his sentence was reduced to one year. The court's explanation in reducing Hakimzadeh's sentence was, "This was not a case of someone stealing to improve his library then preventing scholars from accessing those books in the future. All the books have been recovered and so have the pages." That statement is hard to figure. Evidently the court concluded that Hakimzadeh had no intention of keeping the books for himself. He must simply have forgotten to check them out, and thoughtfully sliced out only the pages he wanted so the rest of the books would remain available for others to borrow. This time, the British Library expressed disappointment with the court's ruling.

James Brubaker, alias "montanasilver," was not a great scholar like Hakimzadeh, or a merchant to the wealthy like Smiley, but he was a respectable citizen, a retired high school chemistry teacher who made a living as an eBay seller. He stole and sliced from libraries all across the Northwestern states of America and western Canada. All in all, he left with more than he brought from around 100 libraries, taking an estimated 10,000-20,000 items with him to stock his inventory. Late last year, he was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison, the judge actually going above the prosecution's recommendation of 2 years.

And so this takes us to the case of Scott Meherg, a 28-year-old person of indeterminate residence in the Chicago area. Meherg sounds like someone who is a bit down and out. His public defender said he has had drug issues for a number of years. One day in 2007, Meherg walked into Graham Crackers Comics of Naperville, Illinois, and walked out with a copy of the Amazing Spider-Man comic number 2. Unlike the others, he did pay for it, but with a forged check. That's as good as stealing, though not as subtle and unnoticeable as the means employed by the previous gentlemen. The value of his theft is easy to compute by the amount of the forged check he wrote - $980.99.

Meherg was identified through a photo lineup and fingerprints he left on the check. He was arrested last fall and recently pleaded guilty. On May 7, the DuPage County Court pronounced sentence on Meherg. He is to serve 7 years in prison.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, wallpaper sample book, circa 1919. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Archive from a late office of the Breuer & Smith architectural team, New York, 1960-70s. $3,500 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> William Morris, <i>The Story of the Glittering Plain or the Land of Living Men,</i> illustrated by Walter Crane, Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, 1894. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustave Doré, <i>La Sainte Bible selon la Vulgate,</i> Tours, 1866. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Gustav Klimt & Max Eisler, <i>Eine Nachlese,</i> complete set, Vienna, 1931. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>Eric Allatini & Gerda Wegener, <i>Sur Talons Rouges,</i> with original watercolor by Wegener, Paris, 1929. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>C.P. Cavafy, <i>Fourteen Poems,</i> illustrated & signed by David Hockney, London, 1966. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b> Jean Midolle, <i>Spécimen des Écritures Modernes...</i>, Strasbourg, 1834-35. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 26:</b><br>E.A. Seguy, <i>Floréal: Dessins & Coloris Nouveaux,</i> Paris, 1925. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VAN. Autograph Manuscript sketch-leaf part of the score of the Scottish Songs, "Sunset" Op. 108 no 2. [Vienna, February 1818]. Inscribed by Alexander Wheelock Thayer. SOLD for $131,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> Violin belonging to Albert Einstein, presented to him by Oscar H. Steger, 1933. SOLD for $516,500
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. Autograph Letter Signed ("Papa") to his son Hans Albert, discussing his involvement with the atomic bomb, September 2, 1945. SOLD for $106,250
    <b>Bonhams: Results from Fine Books and Manuscripts on March 9, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> HAMILTON, ALEXANDER. Autograph Letter Signed, to Baron von Steuben, with extensive notes of Von Steuben's aide Benjamin Walker, June 12, 1780. SOLD for $16,250
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> NEWTON, ISAAC. Autograph Manuscript in Latin, being detailed instructions on making the philosopher's stone. 8 pp. 1790s. SOLD for $275,000
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 9:</b> 1869 Inauguration Bible of President Ulysses S. Grant. SOLD for $118,750
  • <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> E.H. SHEPARD, Original drawing for A.A. Milne’s The House at Pooh Corner.<br>$40,000-60,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> BERNARD RATZER, Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767. $80,000-100,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> THOMAS JEFFERSON, Autograph letter signed comparing Logan, Tecumseh, and Little Turtle to the Spartans. Monticello: 15 February 1821. $14,000-18,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN C. FREMONT, Narrative of the Exploring Expedition to the Rocky Mountains, in the Year 1842.. Abridged edition, the only one containing the folding map From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $3,000-5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ZANE GREY, Album containing 94 large format photographs of Grey and party at Catalina Island, Arizona, and fishing in the Pacific. From the Sporting Library of Arnold “Jake” Johnson. $5,000-$8,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> WILLIAM COMBE, A History of Madeira ... illustrative of the Costumes, Manners, and Occupations of the Inhabitants. produced by Ackermann in 1821; From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> ERIC TAVERNER, Salmon Fishing... One of 275 copies signed by Taverner, published in 1931,From the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN WHITEHEAD, Exploration of Mount Kina Balu, North Borneo. Whitehead reached the high point of Kinabalu in 1888. Part of a major group of travel books from the Sporting Library of Jake Johnson. $2,000-$3,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> JOHN LONG, Voyages and Travels of an Indian Interpreter and Trader, describing the Manners and Customs of the North American Indians... The first edition of 1791. $3,000-$5,000
    <b>Doyle, April 25:</b> SAMUEL BECKETT, Stirrings Still. This, Beckett’s last work of fiction with original lithographs by Le Brocquy, limited to 200 copies signed by the author and the artist. From the Estate of Howard Kaminsky.. $1,500-$2,500

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