November 1, 2016

Recovery - Medieval Manuscript: "Matricula et Statuta paratici fabrorum ferrariorum"

Italian authorities announced last week that they have recovered a stolen Medieval manuscript, titled Pallastrelli 43 or Matricula et Statuta paratici fabrorum ferrariorum, a historical document related to the economic exchange and work of blacksmiths from the city of Piacenza. 

The calf-skin parchment, which dates from the fifteenth century and is made up of 34 finely-detailed vellum pages inscribed in neatly-written red and black ink, was carefully bound between two wooden manuscript boards that serve to form the front and back covers of the book. Spotted on an online auction website for €600, an honorary inspector in Lazio reported his identifications to the the city of Piacenza's archive authorities, who in turn contacted the Carabinieri that one of the library's manuscripts had been spotted.  

The stolen manuscript was one of 145 texts, dating from the 14th to the 17th century, that were stolen in 1985 from the Biblioteca Passerini-Landi in Piacenza during a period when the library had to be shuttered for restoration and renovation work.  The theft is believed to have occurred sometime during repair works on the roof of Palazzo San Pietro which had been damaged due to heavy snows over the winter. 

When the theft was discovered, each of the well-inventoried books were reconciled and a list compiled was given to the the Carabinieri where they were listed in the unit's stolen art Leonardo database system. Between 1986 and 2013 a total of 72 volumes were recovered due to the watchful eyes of investigators and those familiar with the collection. Some volumes were recovered in Germany, some in Switzerland and some in Italy.  A portion of the stolen manuscripts were traced to auction house catalogues in Europe which is why these are heavily monitored by the Italian authorities. 

Then alas, the trail apparently went cold, that is until October 2016.

The Biblioteca Passerini-Landi was created in 1791 to house the merger of the Royal Library, established by Ferdinand of Bourbon with books donated by the Jesuits, along with the collection of the Library Passerini. The Library contains a distinguished collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, any of which, still circulating in the illicit market would be highly prized by antiquarian collectors.  
Note:  Library identifiers have been removed
In addition to the Biblioteca Passerini-Landi, other important libraries, such as the Girolamini Library in Naples, the Library of the Abbey of Montecassino, the Biblioteca dei Servi di Milano, the National Library of Sweden, the Danish Royal Library in Copenhagen and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris have each suffered thefts that serve to sustain the illicit market in stolen books and manuscripts.

During the city's press conference Captain Francesco Provenza of the Comando dei Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale (TPC) of Monza reminded the audience that "the market for archival literary heritage might be a niche market but it is a flourishing one." He further stated that "some collectors are willing to pay huge sums for these works. Even the supply chain is well-established: the thief, if he doesn't list the work for sale on his own, already knows what channels are out there for finding potential customers." 

Italian authorities have charged three individuals living outside Milan for complicity, for helping or encouraging another individual to commit a crime in collection with this theft. It is hoped that their identification will open the door a bit wider on where the other half of the stolen Passerini-Landi books and manuscripts are. 

Since 1996, thousands of specialist antiquarian bookdealers worldwide have used the internet to offer rare art books online. Some antiquarian bookdealers are part of larger trade associations, like the Italian Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ILAI), the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) or the International Online Booksellers Association (IOBA). But there are also numerous independent booksellers who sell their books independently or who offer similar association services.

To combat the sale of illicit material, the ILAB maintains a stolen book database that contains a listing of stolen books, manuscripts and maps beginning with thefts that have occurred from June 15, 2010 onward.  With this database buyers can check (for free) to see if a book they have been offered has been reported as stolen.  Some data in their database is available for older thefts, but this data tends to be limited and less comprehensive. 

But even with these safeguards, dealing with members of bookseller-organizations or professional booksellers - rather than private individuals selling secondhand art books on eBay or elsewhere - does not guarantee quality of descriptions, fair trade, or clean provenance, despite the official wrappings of membership.  It merely means that there is an organizational structure where book dealers can be found, oftentimes honest, but sometimes dishonest.  

Rare book connoisseurs need to exercise caution when purchasing ancient manuscripts from dealers and individual sellers, especially when they see an appealing centuries-old book or manuscript that doesn't come with a clear collection history.  They should also raise their eyebrows to books and documents with strategic tears or missing portions of the book's pages as libraries often place stamps at the beginning or the end of a book or manuscript and these tell-tale signs of theft are often torn away so as to allow the seller the opportunity to plead ignorance as to the book's illicit origin. 

Speaking in relation to the Girolamini Library theft, Giovanni Melillo, the then Deputy Prosecutor of the Naples Tribunal, who lead the library theft's prosecution, said at a 2013 presentation I attended at the ISPAC meeting in Courmayeur “The rule ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is what governs the rare-book market.”

Buyer beware.

By Lynda Albertson