Friday, November 24, 2006

Thieving library staff take a love of rare books too far

The Times November 24, 2006

Thieving library staff take a love of rare books too far
Roger Boyes, Berlin

A mysterious gap in a dusty bookshelf gave the game away for a corrupt library worker who stole more than €800,000 (£541,000) of antique tomes from one of Germany’s most respected universities. Now the trial of Reinhold K (he cannot be named before the hearing) , who slipped 16th-century botanical works under his long black coat, is set to expose the increasingly lucrative world of library theft.

Across Europe, thieves have been targeting ancient and well-stocked libraries, and then feeding their booty to unscrupulous booksellers and auction houses.

Last month, a librarian was found guilty of stealing a 16th-century edition of Chaucer’s works and more than 40 other volumes from Manchester Central Library. The Royal Library in Stockholm has been hit, while the Jagellonian University library in Crakow lost a 15th-century copy of a work by the astronomer Ptolemy, as well as books by Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler.

The University of Erlangen in southern Germany first became suspicious when it tried to locate the beautifully illustrated Herbal Book by Leohart Fuchs, written in 1543. It was regarded as a European treasure — and it was missing.

A closer search showed that some of the world’s standard classical works on botany, one written in 1768, another in 1762, had disappeared. But it took two years to unravel the scope of the theft, which seems to have stretched over two decades, and to catch the thief: the loyal and friendly night porter, Reinhold K.

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