CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — A new book from a University of Illinois expert in crimes against rare books tells the real-life story of the biggest score in rare-book theft and the dogged hunt for the perpetrators by the special investigator of the New York Public Library.
The book, titled “Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped It,” was written by Travis McDade, the curator of law rare books at the College of Law. It’s a Depression-era cat-and-mouse thriller about the pursuit of the most successful rare-book ring in U.S. history.
“There have always been thieves stealing from libraries, but this was different,” McDade said. “This was – and probably still is – the all-time worst theft of rare books in the U.S.”
According to the book, which was published by Oxford University Press, the price of rare books in the 1920s, particularly in the “Americana” genre, started to skyrocket, creating a unique opportunity for unscrupulous booksellers and thieves desperate enough to raid libraries.
“It was the boom years of the Jazz Age, and you had the J.P. Morgans, the Andrew Carnegies, the Henry Huntingtons and the like buying rare books to stock in their libraries,” McDade said. “Thanks to this book-buying bubble, all of the public libraries in the Northeast now had books on their shelves that were pretty valuable.”
With the value of first-edition books going through the roof, a ring of thieves on Book Row – a six-block sliver in lower Manhattan about 20 blocks south of the library – conspired to make some money by raiding libraries and then selling the stolen books to rare booksellers, some of whom were willing to turn a blind eye to the dubious provenance of the prized antiquities.
“Naturally, it turned into this big money-making concern that, by the end of the 1920s, was a very sophisticated operation,” McDade said. “By that point, they had the stealing of rare books down to a science. It was almost economies of scale – someone stole the book, another person ‘cleaned’ it to remove any identifying marks of ownership, and then someone else sold it. And the way they fenced them was through the antiquarian bookshops on Book Row.”
The New York Public Library had a special investigator, G. William Bergquist, whose job was to prevent these types of crimes from happening – or, if they occurred, to track down the stolen books.
“They almost never touched the New York Public Library because the security they had there was so great, and the security everywhere else was so terrible,” McDade said. “So they didn’t need to target the New York Public Library; they could just focus on the smaller ones.”
Whether it was out of hubris or an ambition to take down the ultimate score, one of the criminals eventually had the temerity to steal from the New York Public Library, taking first editions of “Moby-Dick,” “The Scarlet Letter” and an extremely rare book of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe.
But that was the beginning of the end of the book ring, because it put the determined Bergquist on their trail.
“Before they stole from the New York Public Library, Bergquist was only moderately interested in the book-theft ring,” McDade said. “But once they stole from his collection, it became almost a quest for him to put these guys out of business and get the books back. It was a personal affront.”
And the way Bergquist did that was tied to his personality, McDade said.
“Bergquist was a gregarious guy who would talk to anyone – he would talk to book scouts and booksellers and librarians, and his whole idea was whenever he caught someone stealing, he would get the goods back and then immediately try to turn them to the good side,” he said. “He thought everyone was redeemable; he didn’t want anyone going to jail. He wanted them to repent and stop stealing, and then come back to the library side of things.”
One of the thieves eventually became an investigator for the Newark Public Library, but most of the other criminals just went to jail, McDade said.
For book lovers, the story has a bittersweet ending – the ultra-rare Poe book was eventually recovered but “The Scarlet Letter” and “Moby-Dick” were never found.
“With ‘Moby-Dick,’ it was a valuable item that would be difficult, but not impossible, to fence,” McDade said. “But for something like the Poe book, which was very, very rare, everyone who would be in the market for a title like that would know where every copy is coming from. That was the only advantage the New York Public Library had, so they contacted the people in the know, so that if that Poe book was sold somewhere in Manhattan, Philadelphia or Boston, they would get word.”
Even with consumers increasingly buying books electronically, rare-book theft is an omnipresent issue for libraries and museums, McDade said.
“I think books as artifacts are only going to continue to appreciate in value – maybe because of the move to e-books, maybe because of nostalgia,” he said. “But libraries have gotten more sophisticated when it comes to preventing book theft.”
So while it’s becoming harder and harder for outsiders to steal rare books from libraries, it’s the stealing of old maps, lithographs or archival sources such as letters that’s becoming problematic, McDade said.
“That’s really a growth area,” he said. “Think about how much a letter from Abraham Lincoln would fetch on the open market today. Actually, any letter from the Civil War-era written by anyone has some value.”
And the reason is because those items are much more accessible than the rare books, McDade said.
“None of those things individually are worth a mint, but if you steal enough of them, it can add up,” he said. “So there’s this wholesale looting of archives going on right now, and has been for the past decade or so. Most of these things are not catalogued at the item level, so it is sometimes impossible to know at all if they’re missing.”
According to McDade, the tragedy about the theft of archived materials is that those things are absolutely one-of-a-kind.
“So not only is the object gone, the information contained within it is gone, too,” he said. “Sometimes that information is mundane, but often it tells us something. Individual letters are important, because that’s the stuff with which history is written.”
McDade also is the author of “The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman.” He teaches legal research at the College of Law and a class called “Rare Books, Crime & Punishment” in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science.