Oct 2, 2007

Rare Book Thefts in Italy

Marta Falconi has an interesting AP story, Book Thief Investigation in Italy. An Italian man disguised himself as a priest and stole "dozens of 300-year-old books, drawings and watercolors from top libraries and public archives in Rome". Italian authorities have recovered items worth close to $1 million.

The suspect, in his mid-40s, used ink remover to delete identification numbers and library stamps from the items, said Gen. Giovanni Nistri, who heads Italy's police art squad.

When marks were engraved in the paper, he used an iron to smooth them out. He dripped coffee on pages to make them look moldy.

"He showed great competence and even ingeniousness," Nistri said. "In some cases, he dressed as a priest and even locked himself in a bathroom for one day, besides altering the items to make their identification harder," Nistri said.

Some items were sold in Italy and abroad, particularly in France, Nistri said. Nistri did not reveal what led police to the man.

The investigation is now aimed at tracing other trafficking channels, police said.

"Even in the libraries, there's a gigantic cultural heritage that we risk losing for the pleasure of some," Nistri told a news conference Monday.

The suspect, whom authorities would not identify, has been convicted of similar thefts in Turin and is believed to have stolen papers in Modena, Turin and Florence in recent months, Nistri said.

The suspect, who is cooperating with officers, has not been arrested, but police did not rule out an arrest in the future. Officers said there was no immediate risk he would try to flee the country.

An undersecretary in the Culture Ministry, Danielle Gattegno Mazzonis, said the ministry was planning to increase staff and set up alarm systems to monitor libraries and public archives because the trafficking is increasing.

"There are collectors and amateurs of specific epochs that would spend a fortune to have; for example, the original edition of a newspaper which came out the day Garibaldi was born," Mazzonis said.

Police said that as of the end of August, 73,000 stolen books and archive documents were recovered across Italy.

That final number is staggering. How many items are still missing? These items are the most difficult to protect, as they are not especially rare or rise to the level of ultra-valuable items. This makes them much easier to sell.
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