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March 14, 2009

Steal the World

(The following is an english translation of an article that appeared in the Spanish national newspaper ABC in 2008)

A razorblade left on a library floor.

That was the slip-up that led to his arrest. Over 8 years, he had sliced out at least one-hundred rare maps from the world’s greatest libraries.

But this is not the tale of Cesar Gomez Rivero, the thief of Spain’s National Library maps. Nor is it the story of Ben Johnson, the student intern who stole and mutilated scores of important historical letters while working at Yale’s Beinecke Library. This is the story of the American Edward Forbes Smiley III, convicted in May of 2007. He, along with Gomez Rivero and Johnson, are just a few thieves among thousands worldwide who profit from the theft of rare maps, books, and manuscripts.

Map theft is frighteningly commonplace. But discreet statistics are rarely if ever kept by police, so the exact number of book, manuscript, and map thefts per year in various countries is unclear. In the US alone, there are certainly the thousands per year. It is safe to say that there are tens of thousands each year worldwide, the map thefts alone worth tens of millions of euros. The Gomez Rivero case made international headlines, and shook Spain’s infrastructure to the point of politicians and cultural ministers resigning in disgrace, for their failure to protect the treasures in Spain’s National Library. For much of the world, the exposure of Gomez Rivero was a shock—how could this criminal mastermind steal such valuable works from a prominent national institution. But for those in the know, the greatest surprise around the Gomez Rivero case is not that someone was stealing from a national library, but that someone was actually caught.

Gomez Rivero, who admited to the theft of nineteen maps, eleven of which have been recovered, is a small-time crook, compared to a master thief like Smiley. Mr Smiley used Xacto knife blades and wet string to silently dismember rare maps all over the world. He altered the edges to hide his cuts and bleached out ownership stamps, before selling the maps to international collectors and dealers. Among the libraries he victimized are the New York Public Library (eleven maps stolen), the Boston Public Library (thirty-four stolen), Yale University Library (twenty), Harvard University Library (eight), the Newberry Library in Chicago (two), and the British Library (one). And how many stolen works are still out there, which he has not admitted to? The Boston Public Library alone reported thirty-three more maps discovered missing from books which Smiley had consulted in their archives.

The libraries of Yale University have been frequently victimized, and provide a microcosmic example indicative of the huge global problem. In 1973 a pair of priests were charged with the theft of rare books from Yale and other university libraries around the United States. They would conceal rare books under their priestly vestments. The FBI raided their headquarters at the Saint Stephen’s Monastery in Queens, New York, and found hundreds of stolen books. In 1979 Andrew Antippas, a visiting professor from Tulane University, pleaded guilty to having stolen five rare maps from one of Yale’s libraries. In 1981 an antique microscope, built in 1734 and valued at $10,000 (€7000), was stolen from Yale, only to be recovered in a trash can. In 1997, a man called John Ray stole a valuable 19th century art book. And in 2001, 21-year-old summer intern Ben Johnson stole fifty items valued over $2 million (€1.2 million) from Yale’s rare books library, the Beinecke. Keep in mind that these instances are from Yale libraries only, and are only those which were discovered. Certainly countless more have occurred that have not been detected, at Yale, in Madrid, and at libraries worldwide. As Spain’s Foreign Ministry admitted, at least 300 “highly valued” objects have disappeared from the National Library in recent years. A Ministry spokesman said that “already back in 1859 the odd disappearance of a book has been noticed” and yet security remained lax.

Map theft carves a fascinating niche in the history of art crime. Professor Travis McDade of University of Illinois Law School is perhaps the world’s leading expert in rare book and manuscript crime. In a recent conversation with the author, he described what makes map collecting, and the thefts that supply its demand, distinct from other types of art crime. Unlike fine art, which is most often unique, instantly recognizable and traceable, illicit rare maps may be sold at a legitimate level. Gomez Rivero sold some through eBay, for instance. The greatest difficulty in most art crime is not in the stealing but in the selling. Maps, most of which are printed on paper, are far easier to carry, to smuggle, and to sell. McDade puts much of the blame for the ease of sale on over-zealous dealers. “Map dealers are allowed to plead ignorance, saying that they thought the stolen map they bought was a rare opportunity, a fantastic buy. Doesn’t it seem to you that if the owner of an art gallery was approached by some man who just happened to have a Velazquez available, that the art gallery owner should be very suspicious? Some in the map dealer community have been less than assiduous in patrolling their own borders.”

Map collecting has its own qualities, distinct from art or book collecting. Unlike rare books, maps have a display appeal. But unlike most art, maps do not require specialized knowledge to discuss. Much of the pleasure of collecting is not only in the conspicuous display, but in a conspicuous didacticism. To own an object of high value about which you can point out details which are invisible to first-time viewers shows off one’s worldliness. Map collecting appeals to the wealthy dilleton who wants to appear knowledgeable, but does not necessarily have the background training.

Professor McDade explains. “Maybe [the collector] notices that, in an African map, a particular cove in Madagascar wasn’t surveyed, or in another map a particular island in the West Indies was neglected. This is something he can point out to his guests, and he’s likely to be the only person to have noticed it. Often little or nothing has been written about collected maps, so the owner may be the foremost expert on that interesting and unique item on his wall. Never underestimate the need for serious people to have themselves considered smart.”

Map theft is all too easy for several reasons. Compared to art, maps, books, and manuscripts tend to receive little or no protection. Maps tend to be housed in libraries, archives, or offices where researchers are inherently trusted. As McDade warns, “thieves posing as researchers are given some sort of solitary access to items and, even if he only has five to ten seconds, if he knows what he’s doing he can easily cut the map from its housing.” Cameras are easily blocked by the body, and there is little chance that a researcher is being monitored throughout his visit. Maps are works on paper, and are therefore easy to transport, hide, and smuggle. And finally, most maps are not catalogued at an item level, only in their overall binding. “For instance,” McDade describes, “if a library has a 1667 Blaeu Atlas with 100 maps in it, most libraries only catalogue the atlas and not each individual map within it.” So the removal of one page from a book can go undetected for years. “Even if a library has catalogued each map within a book, they likely won’t check each of the maps very often. Discovery will only happen when another person happens to be interested in the same map.”

Just as Spaniards should not think that map theft is a rare occurrence and has happened only to them, they should take some cold comfort in knowing that poor library security is an international handicap. McDade concludes, “the library thefts in Madrid, far from being unique, actually follow a standard practice. A researcher is given access to these things, he knows exactly how to avoid the meager security, he knows exactly what he wants, and no one is ever the wiser.” The surprise is not in the National Library thefts having occurred at all, but that someone was careless enough to have been caught.

The importance of studying the history of art crime is the ability to learn from past mistakes and take measures to prevent it in the future. Edward Forbes Smiley III, Ben Johnson, and Cesar Gomez Rivero offer us many lessons in how to protect maps in our libraries. Researchers, even those known to librarians, should be treated with polite suspicion. Glass-topped work tables should be used so that nothing can be concealed beneath them. Work spaces should be open on the sides, not hemmed in by privacy walls. Video cameras should record steadily the workspace for researchers. Digital images should be catalogued of all maps in a library’s collection, to facilitate identification and tracing. Books should be flipped through at regular intervals, to insure that all of the valuable pages are in place. Staff should occasionally sit with researchers while they work. Rare items should never mix with items from the library’s general collections, to prevent concealment or swapping. Laptops and bags must be opened on entry and departure, always. To defend against insider thefts, better screening of employees is needed, including regular evaluations, monitoring, and exit interviews upon the termination of employment.

There are hundreds of Smileys and Johnsons and Gomez Riveros still out there, plundering one of the least protected of the world’s treasure troves. But we can learn from past thieves how to defend against those in the future.

(For more about ARCA's activities in the field of library and archive security, please see the international conference held at the National Library of Spain and sponsored by AXA last November...After its great success, ARCA is preparing a US conference on the same subject: and