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

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    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
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    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Rufinus, Tyrannius (c. 345-411). <i>Expositio in symbolum apostolorum,</i> [Cologne, Ulrich Zel, c. 1472], first edition. $3,000 to $5,000.
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