Barrage Of Thefts Hits Rare Book Rooms

- by Michael Stillman

A254

Grainy surveillance viedo captured Peter Bellwood "checking out" library books


By Michael Stillman

On December 17, 2004, several rare and quite valuable books were stolen from Transylvania University. That's Transylvania U. as in Transylvania, Kentucky, not Dracula's old hometown. These were not ordinary volumes. According to the Lexington Herald-Leader, there was a first edition of Darwin's Origin of the Species, a collection of twenty sketches or pencil drawings by Audubon in preparation for the 1856 edition of his Birds of America, an "exceedingly rare" 16th century natural history with hand-painted woodcuts, and a 1425 illuminated manuscript. They were reportedly valued for insurance purposes at "several hundred thousand dollars," but likely would bring more in the open market. Certainly a 1425 illuminated manuscript sounds like one that could break the bank. Transylvania University offered a $5,000 reward for their return, but that is unlikely to move the thief if he or she has any familiarity with the going market for these items.

On December 22, 2004, Peter Bellwood was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison for thefts from the National Library in Wales, according to the BBC. This was not the first time Bellwood's interest in rare books has resulted in trouble with the law, and his arrest has led to investigations at other libraries in Europe. Bellwood's activities were particularly nefarious as he carried a razor with him to "work." No, he didn't slice up any librarians, but he did cut up quite a few rare old books. Bellwood's modus operandi was to cut maps out of old books and apparently sell them on the black market. No one suspected him, despite the presence of security cameras and the fact that Bellwood, who signed into the library under his own name, had recently been released from prison for similar activities. He disarmed any suspicions of his honesty early on by handing a bill worth around $50 he claimed to have found in a book over to a librarian. It was not until a warning came from the National Library of Denmark, which discovered Bellwood's activities too late to apprehend him, that the Wales Library realized what was on its surveillance videos. Denmark still wants to prosecute him, and others may as well. The Royal Library of Stockholm, having discovered that Bellwood was a visitor there as well, has also found maps missing from its books.

All in all, Bellwood apparently made off with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of maps. Maps were taken from atlases produced in the 16th and 17th centuries by the likes of Mercator, Blaeu, Jansson and Speed. What is even more tragic is that almost none of the maps has been found, and it appears unlikely that all that many will be recovered. Great books and atlases are probably destroyed forever. And as for his illicit gains, it appears that Bellwood lost most of it betting on horses.