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If you’re in the Pittsburgh area and happen across a rare copy of Ptolemy’s Geography at a local bookseller, beware. It may be one of more than 300 items that have gone missing from the city’s Carnegie Library.
In mid-March, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review’s Megan Guza reported that 314 rare books, maps, folios, and plates had been stolen from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s Oliver Room. The missing items include the aforementioned Ptolemy, as well as John James Audubon’s The Quadrupeds of North America (1851–54), and first editions of Issac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) and Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), among many others.
“We are deeply saddened by this breach of trust,” Suzanne M. Thinnes, communications manager at the library, wrote Hyperallergic in an emailed statement. “The missing and damaged items were discovered last spring during an insurance appraisal as part of a multi-year effort to enhance and preserve our unique collections. This theft occurred over an extended period of time by knowledgeable individual(s). The items would be of value to a limited number of collectors. For recovery purposes and due to pending litigation, we cannot provide an exact value of the missing materials.” She noted that the Oliver Room is in a restricted area in the library and that the staff member formerly responsible for the collection no longer works there. “As of now, suspect(s) have been identified and additional details will be shared by the District Attorney’s office at a later date.”
Reached by email, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office declined to comment on the case.
This is far from the first time rare items have been stolen from libraries. In 2005, Edward Forbes Smiley III was discovered to have made off with 100 rare maps over the course of several years from six different libraries in New York, Boston, London, and Chicago, and at Harvard and Yale.
“He was captured in 2005 at the Yale University rare book library, when he dropped a razor blade and a librarian found it,” Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps, told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. It appears Smiley was cutting valuable maps out of books and taking them home with him.
In response to the theft in Pittsburgh, Blanding said he was surprised to learn of the number of items stolen from just one library without anyone taking notice, leading him to believe that either the library has lax security or the theft was an inside job. From the list of stolen items in Pittsburgh, he noticed that the maps weren’t nearly as valuable as the books, so either the thief was more of a book expert or this was just a reflection of the Carnegie Library’s collections. “A majority of these kinds of thefts are done by insiders,” he said. “Smiley was a map dealer, and libraries knew him very well and trusted him. But he would rip a map out of a book; I can’t imagine how someone’s walking out with a Ptolemy under their arm.”
Blanding noted that there are generally two types of rare book thieves — ones that steal for money and book hoarders. “Most do it for the money, but then there’s this hybrid. They think the library’s not taking care of the books,” he said. So they nab them in order to give the books a better life elsewhere.
As for recovering the stolen items, Blanding said that “unlike art theft, when everyone knows what to look for, with rare books, there could be a dozen or two dozen copies in the proverbial grandmother’s attic. If the thieves are smart, they’ll go to different dealers and get away with it. A lot of times, dealers don’t ask as many questions as they should, often perpetuating this kind of thing.”
Blanding said that although the Carnegie Library waited a year to announce the theft, he’s impressed with the public release of such a comprehensive list of missing items. “But the fact that they waited so long could really hurt the ability to recover these items quickly,” he wrote to Hyperallergic in a follow-up email. “It really makes me wonder why they took so long — whether it had something to do with an investigation by police, potentially of an insider, or whether rather the library was merely trying to avoid embarrassment.”
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