Here in Boston, we were lucky. Headlines had sounded the alarm: rare prints had gone missing from our much beloved Boston Public Library. Masterpieces had been spirited away! Policy was dissected, and resignations were tendered. And then… the prints resurfaced. Their disappearance turned out not to be the result of theft but rather due to the much more benign problem of bad re-filing. The prints hadn’t been stolen, they were simply misplaced.
But although Boston got off lightly this time, the case did shine a light on a terrible and growing problem: the theft of books and manuscripts. Not from dealers or antique shops – though those too go missing – but worse: from libraries and other research centers where these beautiful and valuable books had been accessible to scholars and the general public for years.
As Norbert Donhofer, president of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers said in a recent interview on the group’s website, “There have always been book thefts, and there will always be book thefts.” But in recent years, the problem may have gotten worse. In 2013, thousands of books – including centuries-old works by Machiavelli, Aristotle, and Descartes – were stolen from the Girolamini Library in Naples, Italy. What was worse, the culprit – or at least one of the conspirators – was the library’s former director (14 people were eventually charged).
This matters to me for the obvious reason that I, like you, love books. And the idea that people would steal – would take for personal use – something that was being made available to readers and researchers just makes the crime worse. However, it did give me the prompt for my new Dulcie Schwartz mystery, “Code Grey” (Severn House).
To catch folks up, “Code Grey” is the ninth in this cozy series. My heroine, Dulcie, is a graduate student writing her dissertation on an anonymous (and fictional) Gothic novel from the late 1790s. So I get to share my love of books through Dulcie (as well as my love of cats – Dulcie is watched over by the ghost of her late, great cat, Mr. Grey – no, not that Mr. Grey, mine came first). As “Code Grey” opens, Dulcie runs into a troubled former student whose paranoia seems more a product of mental illness than of any real persecution. But when he is found unconscious near a library, a long-missing book hidden in his coat, Dulcie has to wonder: Could the onetime scholar have stolen it and hidden it all these years? Or could his rantings be clues about a larger conspiracy to defraud the library – and all who study there?
Although the Girolamini case gave me the seed of “Code Grey,” when I started to write I realized I needed to go deeper. And sadly, as I found, that case is not unique. Stolen-Book.org, an international database, lists many of the most valuable works that have gone missing since 2010, as well as articles relating to their theft and, on occasion, the ongoing legal cases. The idea of the database is to publicize these crimes, in the hope that some of these works will be recovered as dealers come to recognize illegally obtained pieces.
Time is often of the essence. Not just for solving these crimes, but to save the books. Because once they fall into disreputable hands they are often destroyed – the showiest or most beautiful illustrations or bits of illumination cut out for individual sale. Single maps are razored from antique atlases for private display. The results are private treasures, but the cost is the greater work and all the history and potential for knowledge it holds. Think of it as the book version of a pelt, or even a partial pelt, being taken at the cost of the living creature.
Speaking of living animals (and Dulcie does have a live cat, Esmé, too), some of these stories do have happy endings. And, especially for a cozy like “Code Grey,” I set out to learn about these as well. Some of Dulcie’s happier scenes – and one of the bigger discoveries – take place in a conservation lab at her university.
I am not a conservator, and I am waiting to hear what errors I have made. But I can tell you that the field is fascinating. From what I have read and witnessed, restoring a book – whether it has been damaged through mishandling or theft or simply the ravages of time – is magical.
Don’t get me wrong. The techniques used to stabilize and restore these books are heavily reliant on science, specifically chemistry. Non-reactive papers are used as backing for crumbling pages or to re-bind books whose covers have been attacked by water, insects, or mold. Space-age plastics are used to protect works too fragile to rebuild. But it is also an art. Just ask the conservator who re-attaches pages of an antique Quran using translucent Japanese tissue, making the sacred book readable again without obscuring its beautiful calligraphy. Or the technician who improvises tools from a dentist’s kit, making the minute movements that over hours, over days, over months will bring a book back to life. These experts are truly unlocking the mysteries of books.
Clea Simon is the author of 18 mysteries in the Dulcie Schwartz, Pru Marlowe pet noir, and Theda Krakow series. She can be reached at www.cleasimon.com.
Code Grey by Clea Simon. Severn House. 2015. ISBN 9780727885067 (hardcover), 224p.
Interview with Donhofer: https://www.ilab.org/eng/booksellers_main_page/meet_the_ilab_booksellers/Norbert_Donhofer.html
Quran restoration: http://www.theconservationcenter.com/article/677310-conserving-an-antique-book-a-collaboration