Monday, February 02, 2009

Guardian Comments on Book Thefts

The Guardian's crime correspondent, Sandra Laville, has a column today on library thefts, including updates on William Simon Jacques (aka still on the run) and Farhad Hakimzadeh, plus some new news about a case which had slipped under my radar, that of David Slade.

Slade, 59, is the former head of the ABA and a longtime antiquarian book dealer in England. He stole 68 books from the collections of financier Sir Evelyn de Rothschild (he'd been hired to catalogue the collection and swiped the items on the sly), and sold them at auction. He pled guilty after Rothschild discovered the books were missing during an inventory. Laville points out that this case - and it's a doozy - has received "no publicity" to date, which is true, and regrettable.

Laville: "Alan Shelley, current president [of the ABA], said the only way to eradicate the trafficking of rare books was to work closely with libraries, auctioneers and dealers.

The British Library has led the way by admitting when it is the victim of theft. But while major international libraries alert each other to details of stolen books or descriptions of thieves, these do not always reach the antiquarian book trade and not all libraries are honest about falling victim to theft.

'We all need to be a bit more grown up,' said Jolyon Hudson, from Pickering and Chatto antiquarian bookseller. '[Libraries] are the curators of the nation's knowledge, and when they lose it they are somewhat embarrassed to admit that.'"

All fair points, and all reasons that those of us who work hard to make these cases public do what we do. Auction houses and book dealers must do a more thorough job of checking provenance, and must report suspicious items when they are offered for sale. Libraries and all other institutions must speak out when they've been robbed, and must follow through on the cases and carry them to completion. Collectors must also be watchful of what they're purchasing - even when it's from reputable dealers - and follow up on any suspicious items offered or purchased. Most importantly, all three groups must talk to each other.

But the media also plays a role here: The Guardian reaches a whole lot more people than my posts do, so it cannot just be dealers, auctioneers, librarians and collectors who talk about these matters amongst themselves (although that is a terribly important component). Laville and her counterparts at other news organizations should take these thefts as seriously as we do, and write about them more often. If the international media publicized cultural crimes more often and in more depth, not only would more thieves be captured, but judges and legislatures would take notice and enact the penalties these criminals deserve.

There is no quick fix to the problem. As long as there are books and libraries, there will always be book thieves. Those of us charged with the protection of our cultural heritage must, indeed, raise our voices still louder to demand strong punishments for who seek to steal and damage. But we cannot do it alone.