Barrage Of Thefts Hits Rare Book Rooms
Bellwood wasn't the only individual to be sentenced to prison for book theft in December. On the 17th, 69-year-old Eva Moeller-Kristensen was sentenced to 3 years in prison for selling 77 stolen books. Mrs. Moeller-Kristensen is the widow of the former head librarian at the Denmark Royal Library. Frede Moeller-Kristensen had helped himself to many volumes from the library in the 1960s and 1970s, but had never tried to dispose of them. You might call him a "collector." When he died, his wife was faced with the question faced by many widows of collectors: what do you do with this stuff? She made the seemingly logical decision that other widows might make with such a valuable collection. She asked Christie's to sell them. Unfortunately for her, Christie's became suspicious, tracked down the source of some of the volumes, and turned the widow in. So while the actual thief was never caught or punished, he did leave his wife, son, and daughter-in-law (the latter two were accomplices) an inheritance they wish they had never received.
The Local, an online publication from Sweden, reports that a 48-year-old man who died in a violent explosion in his apartment on December 8 had admitted to book theft a few days earlier. The explosion, at first thought to be a tragic accident, was instead a suicide. The thief was evidently known and trusted at Uppsala University's Carolina Rediviva Library. Some of their books were found in the wreckage. The stolen books were said to be from the 16th and 17th centuries.
According to the New Zealand Herald, Lee Simpson was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison on January 22 for years of stealing books from libraries, altering them to disguise their ownership, and selling them to unsuspecting buyers, often online. Apparently his late father had been a book collector, so Simpson was able to make it appear that the books had come from his estate. It is believed that he had cleared over $150,000 over the years, much to support a gambling habit.
Finally, Peter Breithaupt, a former night supervisor at the Kenyon College Library in Ohio, recently pleaded guilty to selling books stolen from that library. While Breithaupt did not have access to the library's special collections, he was able to persuade custodians to let him in unsupervised. His case touches on a fear perhaps even greater than that of the traditional black market: eBay. Breithaupt made his money by posting his books for sale in the vast, unsupervised ocean of anonymity that has become a means of disposing of stolen goods. The listings are so numerous that it is hard for anyone to spot the illicit ones, crime victims, law enforcement, and eBay alike. Fortunately, there are always some eyes on the lookout, and if you go to the well too many times, you get caught. This happened to Breithaupt when someone from Georgia noticed a copy of a book from Kenyon's library for sale. Unfortunately for Kenyon, this didn't happen until 50 books had already been sold, with a value estimated at over $50,000. The best was a 1528 copy of Ptolemy's Almagest, sold for $4,750.
What can we conclude from this recent spate of library theft cases? First the good news, for collectors, dealers, and even the libraries: the old and rare books they have been collecting have become quite valuable. Thieves are attracted to value, not bargains. And since most aren't collectors themselves, there is obviously a healthy market for this material.