Vast Theft of Antiquarian Books Sends a Shudder Through a Cloistered World of Dealers

By Sarah MervoshAugust 28, 2018

A rare books dealer thought he had gotten lucky in 2013 when he managed to acquire a 1787 French first edition — inscribed by Thomas Jefferson when he was ambassador to France.

“If someone else had seen it first, it would have been gone,” said the dealer, John Thomson, who owns Bartleby’s Books, an online shop.

He had no idea that his seeming good fortune was a byproduct of one of the most expansive rare book thefts in history.

The dealer at a book fair who sold it to him, John Schulman, is now accused of conspiring with a library archivist, Gregory Priore, to steal and sell rare items from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.

The two carried out the theft over nearly two decades, the authorities said, stealing about 300 books and other artifacts that, in total, would cost more than $8 million to replace.

Their arrests last month sent a shudder across the rare books industry, a multimillion-dollar business in the United States, according to the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America.

In this niche world based on trust, where confidants are currency and handshake deals are commonplace, the arrest of a prominent dealer is a shocking suggestion of deceit.

Mr. Schulman had served on the association’s board of governors and had even led its ethics committee, the organization said. His clients included some of the biggest names in the business. Prominent bookshops from New York to London bought stolen books, an affidavit shows.

“It’s basically a ‘who’s who’ of people in the rare book field,” said Travis McDade, curator of rare books for the University of Illinois College of Law.

None of the buyers are accused of wrongdoing. But the booksellers’ association is taking steps to try to prevent a similar wide-scale theft from happening again.

We traced the path of one book, the edition signed by Jefferson, to explain how the theft is suspected to have worked — and why it went undetected for so long.

John Schulman, co-owner of Caliban Book Shop, after his arraignment in Pittsburgh in July, when he was accused of theft and criminal conspiracy.CreditDarrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, via Associated Press

A nearly ‘foolproof’ setup

While there have been other infamous rare book thefts, occasionally by industry insiders, the Carnegie Library case, according to prosecutors, notably involved a collaboration between a librarian and a dealer.

“That is absolutely unique,” said Mr. McDade, an expert on rare book thefts who has written several books on the subject. “You just don’t see it.”

As the library archivist, Mr. Priore had access to a collection of rare books and other items at the public Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. As a well-known dealer and owner of the Caliban Book Shop in Pittsburgh, Mr. Schulman had access to a network of potential buyers.

“It was an amazing setup that was close to foolproof,” Mr. McDade said, noting that most rare book thieves get caught trying to sell their goods.

In a scheme that dated back to the late 1990s, Mr. Priore told the authorities, he would remove items from the library and drop them off at Mr. Schulman’s bookshop, just a block away, on his way home from work.

Mr. Schulman paid Mr. Priore up front, and then worked to sell the goods at higher prices, according to the affidavit.

Lawyers for both Mr. Schulman and Mr. Priore declined to comment. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for Oct. 12.

Among the valuable items they stole, according to the authorities: a 1687 version of Isaac Newton’s “Principia,” one of the most influential books in science; a rare copy of “The Journal of Major George Washington”; and expensive prints by Edward S. Curtis, a famous photographer who documented Native American life.