10 December 2009

Book Thieves 1

(From Robin Healey.) I’ve just come across Allison Hoover Bartlett’s recent study of bibliomania, or rather kleptomania, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much . I say kleptomania, because the main character in this series of pen portraits is John Gilkey, who unlike some of the other misfits Bartlett writes about, isn’t so much obsessed with books as beautiful objects or repositories of wisdom, but sees them more as meal tickets to a better life. Gilkey stole $100,000 worth of rare volumes using stolen credit card numbers to pay for luxury items. Earlier on in his career as a credit card thief he had acquired pizzas and foreign currency in the same way.

Two other figures in her books can more properly be classed as true bibliomaniacs, since one ( a Spanish monk ) was insane enough to justify his murder of ten collectors with the chilling apophthegm ‘ Every man must die, but good books must be conserved ‘, while the obsession of a professor in Nebraska led him to sleep on a cot in his kitchen to make room for his 90 tons of books.

Reading Bartlett I was reminded of the rebarbative Farhad Hakimzadeh (mugshot left) , not so much the Bookseller of Kabul but more the Book Destroyer of Knightsbridge. He it was who expertly removed pages out of scholarly works on the Middle East mainly to make up
defective copies in his own splendid collection –a crime for which he received two years in jail. He is now free and facing a hefty bill from the BL. It was Germaine Greer, sworn enemy of book thieves and book breakers, who enlightened me on the methods of such as Hakimzadeh. They, she was reliably informed, simply insert a fragment of Stanley knife blade under a nail and run their finger along the book’s inner spine. The leaves they remove are then hidden among their own papers.

Hakimzadeh was arrested a full two years after his crimes were committed, but how many others who despoil public collections have escaped detection ---their vandalism undiscovered ? The purloining of single leaves is easy enough to do in UK research libraries, mainly because the checking on exit is inadequate and also because white paper and other documents are allowed into the research areas. At the HRHRC in Austin only yellow paper is permitted and researchers are also obliged to deposit all their own documents in a locker before entering the research area. Hence thefts are exceptionally rare. Why UK libraries don’t follow suit is beyond me. Dimness, complacency, shortage of resources. Take your pick.

But there some beacons of light. At Manchester’s John Rylands Library and the BBC Written Archives in Caversham, before a collection is brought to a researcher an archivist will have listed exactly what items are contained in a seemingly ‘ loose ‘ collection of documents .And when that collection is returned the archivist compares what ought to be there with what is returned. And woe betide anyone who removes the most modest of documents from a file. They know where you live !

And if single leaves can disappear from printed books where at least rudimentary surveillance exists, how easy can it be for the ingenious and brazen thief to escape detection in the average antiquarian bookshop ? How is it that so few booksellers can apparently afford to install a magic beam or even a modest closed circuit camera system ? These would pay for themselves over a short period and presumably bring down the cost of insurance—presuming booksellers bother to get cover. In response most booksellers contend that stringent security measures undermine the pleasant relationships they need to retain with their customers—and thieves, of course, take advantage of this.

However, it’s good to know that some thieves are caught in flagrante. I like that reaction by the late Peter Jolliffe of Ulysses Bookshop, who when he caught a regular customer red handed shouted at him ‘Stop stealing my books !’. Upon which that thief burst into tears, fled the premises and was never seen again in that particular shop. On another occasion the unworldly bookseller only discovered that his copies of Virginia Woolf’s On Being Ill and Golding’s Lord of the Flies ( worth a total of £4,000) had been stolen when he checked the shelf where he had last seen the books. The problem seems to be that certain clothing is ideal for hiding books in, and that books and newspapers are good places too. How easy it is to conceal a copy of A Quinzaine for this Yule** in a folded Daily Telegraph , Times or Guardian? It seems to me that booksellers could learn a lot from the HRHRC and its Yellow Paper Principle. All customers should remove overcoats ( Bob Cohen, who stole regularly from the Birmingham and Midland Institute, was a book-in-overcoat specialist ) when they enter the shop and request that if they are carrying books, newspapers and suchlike, that they leave these behind too. After all, bags are invariably barred from basements. Are these simple precautions beyond most booksellers ? Would most customers be offender by such requests? I don’t think so.

Thanks Robin. Sleeping in a cot in a kitchen with 90 tons of books? That's nothing! I have seen such severe bibliomania that the person could no longer reach his own kitchen for books and had to subsist on takeouts. Talking of stealing plates from libraries I was reminded of the scene in Polanski's 'Chinatown' where the Jack Nicholson character steals a page from a book in a public library covering the noise with a cough. It's Chinatown!

I attended an official auction of a book thief's library thefts about 10 years ago in Suffolk and bought a few modest lots. He seemed to have stolen from libraries in the Northampton area and was currently banged up. The trouble was that this 'tealeaf' (sometimes 'booster') had trimmed and treated all the books to remove ex library evidence and they were hence unsightly, also he had poorish taste in literature. It seems that you don't get great minds going in to this field of crime. Curiously it was the last time I saw Charles Traylen. He must have been in his 90s and was wheeled in to view this sorry lot. I remember him laughing at the stuff. Oddly enough this was the man who practically invented the modern cult for collecting plate books...

** Ezra Pound's second book (1908) which would probably now retail at $20,000 especially the Pollock and Co., edition.
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