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Vast Theft of Antiquarian Books Sends a Shudder Through a Cloistered World of Dealers

A rare books dealer thought he had gotten lucky in 2013 when he managed to acquire a 1787 French first edition — inscribed by Thomas Jefferson when he was ambassador to France.

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Sarah Mervosh
, New York Times

A rare books dealer thought he had gotten lucky in 2013 when he managed to acquire a 1787 French first edition — inscribed by Thomas Jefferson when he was ambassador to France.

“If someone else had seen it first, it would have been gone,” said the dealer, John. Thomson, who owns Bartleby’s Books, an online shop.

He had no idea that his seeming good fortune was a byproduct of one of the most expansive rare book thefts in history.

The dealer at a book fair who sold it to him, John Schulman, is now accused of conspiring with a library archivist, Gregory Priore, to steal and sell rare items from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The two carried out the theft over nearly two decades, authorities said, stealing about 300 books and other artifacts that, in total, would cost more than $8 million to replace.

Their arrests last month sent a shudder across the rare books industry, a multimillion dollar business in the United States, according to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.

In this niche world based on trust, where confidants are currency and handshake deals are commonplace, the arrest of a prominent dealer is a shocking suggestion of deceit.

Schulman had served on the association’s board of governors and had even led its ethics committee, the organization said. His clients included some of the biggest names in the business. Prominent bookshops from New York to London bought stolen books, an affidavit shows.

“It’s basically a ‘who’s who’ of people in the rare book field,” said Travis McDade, curator of rare books for the University of Illinois College of Law.

None of the buyers are accused of wrongdoing. But the booksellers’ association is taking steps to try to prevent a similar wide-scale theft from happening again.

We traced the path of one book, the edition signed by Jefferson, to explain how the theft is suspected to have worked — and why it went undetected for so long.

— A nearly ‘foolproof’ setup

While there have been other infamous rare book thefts, occasionally by industry insiders, the Carnegie Library case, according to prosecutors, notably involved a collaboration between a librarian and a dealer.

“That is absolutely unique,” said McDade, an expert on rare book thefts who has written several books on the subject. “You just don’t see it.”

As the library archivist, Priore had access to a collection of rare books and other items at the public Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. As a well-known dealer and owner of the Caliban Book Shop in Pittsburgh, Schulman had access to a network of potential buyers.

“It was an amazing setup that was close to foolproof,” McDade said, noting that most rare book thieves get caught trying to sell their goods.

In a scheme that dated back to the late 1990s, Priore told the authorities, he would remove items from the library and drop them off at Schulman’s bookshop, just a block away, on his way home from work.

Schulman paid Priore up front, and then worked to sell the goods at higher prices, according to the affidavit.

Lawyers for both Schulman and Priore declined to comment. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12.

Among the valuable items they stole, according to the authorities: a 1687 version of Isaac Newton’s “Principia,” one of the most influential books in science; a rare copy of “The Journal of Major George Washington;” and expensive prints by Edward S. Curtis, a famous photographer who documented Native American life.

— The anatomy of a rare book theft

One of the prized items was the book inscribed by Jefferson, “De la France et des Etats-Unis,” an important economic work by two French authors.

Schulman paid the librarian about $1,000 for the volume, Priore told the authorities, according to the affidavit.

In 2013, Schulman took the book to a book fair on the East Coast. He shared a booth with Thomson of Bartleby’s Books, whom he had known for about three decades, according to Thomson. It quickly caught his eye, he said, and he bought it for $5,000, according to investigators. At some point, Thomson said, he asked Schulman about markings in the book, which indicated it had come from a library. Schulman assuaged his concerns with a letter, bearing Priore’s name, that said that the book had been “de-accessioned,” or officially removed from the library’s collection.

The authorities say the letter was forged.

Believing the book to be legitimate, Thomson sold it for $36,000 to Between the Covers, a bookstore, which sold shares in the book to two other dealers: Bauman Rare Books and University Archives. All said that they made their deals largely based on the reputation of their fellow dealers.

“You have relations with people, you trust people,” said Eric Pedersen, who manages the New York gallery of Bauman Rare Books. “The people don’t say where they got it from. People keep their sources close to the vest because these things aren’t easy to find.”

The three book dealers planned to split the profits.

But before they could find a buyer, the Carnegie Library conducted an audit of its rare books collection in 2017, apparently the first since the 1990s. Officials quickly realized many items were missing and eventually fired Priore.

Appraisers spotted the book signed by Jefferson being sold online, according to the affidavit.

The listed price? A whopping $95,000.

Now what?

Since then, the book has been handed over to the authorities. It is among about $1 million worth of stolen items that have been recovered, according to the affidavit. Others are still missing.

Dealers said they would be more cautious going forward, but would not allow one case to upend how they do business. “It happened in a small world,” Pedersen said. “A lot of people have known each other for a very long time. I think people are going to rightfully proceed with caution.” Thomson said that when dealing with high-value items from libraries, he now plans to ask multiple people at the library to sign off. But he and other dealers said the libraries themselves should take more responsibility for keeping track of their collections.

Over the course of almost 20 years, he said, “It’s a little unbelievable to me that at some point something wasn’t noticed as missing.”

A spokeswoman for the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh said that the library was reviewing its policies with outside experts.

Susan Benne, executive director of the antiquarian booksellers’ group, said the organization was working to create best practices for handling materials de-accessioned from libraries and is developing training on theft and provenance.

She said she was not aware of any other instances in the last 15 years in which a member had been found in violation of the ethics code for selling stolen goods.

Schulman has resigned from the booksellers’ association.

“I certainly hope that what’s alleged is not true,” Thomson said. If it is, he added, “It is a great betrayal of trust.”

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