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January 27, 2024

Italy Takes Action: Preventive Seizure Decree Targets Stolen Books from Girolamini Library and a list of Hot Texts

Italy's Ministry of Culture, in collaboration with the Public Prosecutor's Office at the Court of Naples, has announced a significant move in the pursuit of justice for its stolen textual treasures. A preventive seizure decree has been issued in early 2024 highlighting 361 important texts, carefully selected from those known to have been pilfered from the Biblioteca e Complesso monumentale dei Girolamini and which have not (yet) been recovered. 

Objective of the Seizure:

The decree, the execution of which is left to the Naples unit of the Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale, aims to locate and seize rare Girolamini texts wherever they may be. This effort also extends to encouraging the spontaneous restitution of stolen editions by current holders who might be unaware of the illicit origin of specific titles they may have inadvertently purchased but known to have been stolen from the library.

Background of the Library:

The extraordinary Girolamini Library of Naples is home to almost 160,000 ancient manuscripts and books and opened its doors to the public in 1586.  Built alongside the Church and Convent of the Girolamini, the library served as the convent’s Oratory and is believed to be one of the richest libraries in Southern Italy.

The collection, which includes many rare editions dating from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is centred on Christian theology, philosophy, sacred music, and the history of Europe and the Catholic Church.  After the massive Irpinia earthquake, which struck Campania in 1980 the Biblioteca e Complesso monumentale dei Girolamini was closed for an extended period.  The library's collection, off limit to anyone except specific scholars with collection permissions, suffered from a lengthy period of neglect, only to be plundered by a network of individuals tasked with its very protection.

Details on the thefts:

In April 2012 it was discovered that as many as 1500 important texts were missing from the Biblioteca dei Girolamini. At the epicenter of the scandal was the library's appointed director, Marino Massimo de Caro, who was swiftly suspended and subsequently prosecuted for embezzlement.  Alongside him, other accomplices from Italy, Argentina, and the Ukraine would also be implicated and later prosecuted as a result of the scandal.

On 19 April 2012 the Biblioteca de Girolamini was formally impounded by the judicial authorities as Naples prosecutor, Giovanni Melillo oversaw an investigation into the library's thefts.  As part of this investigation, the prosecutor authorised the tapping of De Caro's phone, through which Melillo and investigators learned that the library's former director had been stashing looted books in his home, in a storage unit in Verona, and in the basement of an accomplice’s aunt as well as arranging to sell many others onward.   

Some stolen volumes were fenced through major Italian dealers as well as private collectors. An additional 543 books travelled on to Germany where they were to be auctioned on May 9, 2012 at the Bavarian auction house Zisska & Schauer in Munich after accomplices to the Girolamini library thefts stripped the institution's markings from the titles to be auctioned. 

While under questioning, De Caro would claim that the books sent to Munich were from his own personal collection.  Despite this, investigations determined that many of the consigned texts in fact came from both the Girolamini Library and the priests’ convent library and that the auction house Zisska & Schauer had paid an emissary of De Caro’s nine hundred thousand euros in advance of the texts' auction date, with De Caro expecting to receive a million euros more after the bidding closed.

With requests for assistance in hand, the German authorities halted the sale at Zisska & Schauer, and later arrested the company’s executive director, Herbert Schauer.

Ultimately, De Caro was sentenced to seven years in prison, coupled with a lifetime ban from holding public office. His expedited trial focused on the embezzlement of hundreds of volumes from the Girolamini Library, although De Caro has been connected to thefts from additional targeted institutions. 

Other defendants, including Viktoriya Pavlovsky, Alejandro Cabello, Mirko Camuri, Lorena Paola Weigandt, Federico Roncoletti, and Herbert Schauer also faced legal consequences, with varying prison terms and exclusions from public office. Viktoriya Pavlovsky, De Caro's young assistant, received a sixty-four-month prison term and permanent exclusion from public office, Alejandro Cabello and Mirko Camuri, described in the press as bodyguards, were both sentenced to fifty-six months in prison.  Lorena Paola Weigandt, who loaded stolen books from the library into the car and took them to Verona and another Verona resident, Federico Roncoletti each received sentences of thirty-two months in prison. 

Herbert Schauer was arrested by German authorities on 2 August 2013, following the execution of a European arrest warrant. He was subsequently sentenced in the first degree by the Court of Naples to 5 years of imprisonment for his involvement in receiving stolen property,  however his sentence was overturned by the Italian Court of Cassation.

Call for Collaboration:

ARCA would like to remind book and manuscript collectors that the market for archival literary heritage might be a niche market but it is a flourishing one that often overlaps with fine art crimes, driven by the high prices some collectors are willing to pay for the rarest of publications.  

Acknowledging that some good faith purchases may be in possession of these stolen items without knowledge of their illicit origin, the Italian authorities are now stressing the need for help from the general public, as well as antiquarian book dealers, and professionals worldwide who are more likely to come in contact with the library's rare material. 

In furtherance to this, the Italian Ministry of Culture has released a 31-page list of the most important stolen texts documented as having been stolen which are known to have been circulated at some point after their theft in Naples.  This list can be reviewed here.

Please note that this newly released listing does not appear to be uploaded to ILAB's stolen book database which is often the first place most book collectors turn to when checking the legal status of books, manuscripts, and maps that have been the subject of thefts which have occurred from June 15, 2010 onward.  

Given these items have not been uploaded to this database, the linked list should be downloaded so that buyers can check for themselves to see if a text they have been offered or purchased has been documented as stolen from the Naples library.