Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2013 Issue

Two More Ensnared in Massive Library Theft... More Likely to Come

A bookbinder removed the Girolamini Library's identification stamp.

A bookbinder from Bologna has been charged with adding a new dimension to his job description. This is just the latest development in the miserable Girolamini Library theft case. It is now believed around 4,000 books were stolen from the Girolamini Library in Naples, Italy. It is one of the largest book thefts in recent memory. The bookbinder becomes the sixth person arrested in the case with more arrests expected. Next may be a senator and important political figure.

The bookbinder played a minor, though important role in the alleged operation. His job was to remove the library stamps from the books. This enabled the books to move on to their destinations without their illegal origin being known. It is alleged that these 4,000 books made their way all over Europe, South America, even Asia. They ended up with antique sellers, collectors, and auction houses. Along with the bookbinder, a man described as a “runner,” one who transported the books from Naples to their next stop, was recently arrested.

The big fish in the operation was Massimo De Caro. He had been placed in charge of the library, a political appointment with evidently little regard for his qualifications. He began removing books at night and moving them along a network. He is now in jail and said to be cooperating with police. He is also reported to have given the explanation that he was selling the books to raise money for the library, which was definitely in need of repair. However, the stealth he used in removing the books, the lack of any record keeping, his lack of oversight for the library or applying the proceeds for its benefit, and strange behaviors such as the clandestine removal of library markings, makes this explanation suspicious, to say the least.

The operation to remove the books from the library came crashing down last spring when a historian visited the library to conduct research. He found the library in total disarray. Books were stacked haphazardly around the place, sometimes on the floor next to empty soda cans. He wrote about what he found, which led to an investigation and the arrest of De Caro and others, including a priest responsible for security at this church affiliated library.

The next target in the investigation appears to be Marcello Dell'Utri. Dell'Utri is a senator, a member of former premier Silvio Berlusconi's People of Freedom party. He was a close aid of the former premier, is a bibliophile, and is currently on trial for assisting the Mafia. It has been alleged that he received around 10 of the stolen books for his collection. Dell'Utri's name was removed from his party's list of candidates for the recent election for obvious reasons.

The Girolamini Library case has renewed cries from those concerned with Italy's cultural heritage, recently from the head of the Vatican Museums. Certainly, conditions at the Girolamini were deplorable. However, this case does bring attention to the difficulties a nation like Italy faces in preserving its heritage.

The Girolamini library opened during the 16th century. Americans may not appreciate the difficulty a nation like Italy faces preserving all of its heritage. There was virtually no recorded history of America at the time the Girolamini opened its doors, and yet this is recent times for Italy. Its recorded history goes back to Roman times, over two millennia ago. That is a lot of history to preserve. Meanwhile, Italy is a relatively small nation, and the recession that has hit much of the world has hit Italy harder than most. It does not have lots of money to spread around to preserve libraries, museums, ancient structures, and all of the other artifacts of its long and rich history. This is an enormous challenge the nation faces, and the presence of people like Mr. De Caro and his cohorts does not make the task any easier.

Rare Book Monthly

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