Museum Security Network

What drives people to steal precious books

By Tim Richardson

Published: March 6 2009 17:01 | Last updated: March 6 2009 17:01

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Every so often a high-profile example of book theft makes the news. The crime in question does not concern hard-up students helping themselves to textbooks in Foyles. Rather it details cases of premeditated, often audacious, theft of beautiful and rare books.

It happened in January, when Farhad Hakimzadeh, an Iranian businessman and book collector, was given a two-year sentence for cutting and stealing pages from antiquarian books in the British and Bodleian libraries over seven years. Hakimzadeh, 60, said he took the pages, from texts that date back to the 16th century and deal with European and Middle Eastern relations, only to augment his own collection. It was proved, however, that he was using stolen single pages to increase the value of books he already owned, which he could then sell. One such page contained a 500-year-old map painted by Hans Holbein, an artist in the court of Henry VIII, worth £32,000.

It also happened in August 2000, when Stanislas Gosse, a 30-year-old former naval officer and engineering tutor, began secretly to plunder the library of the ancient monastery of Mont Sainte-Odile, high in the Vosges mountains of eastern France.

Gosse stole a key and began taking volumes at night from the library, which contains thousands of precious illuminated books. He carried the weightier tomes home on his bicycle. Later he utilised a forgotten secret passage to gain entry to the library.

When Gosse was finally caught red-handed in May 2002, he was trying to get away with three suitcases containing 300 books – at which point he admitted everything. Police raided his flat and found 1,100 historical and religious books and manuscripts meticulously arranged, catalogued and, in some cases, restored. Nothing had been sold.

A few years after this incident, as the only other user present at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library in Westminster, I had the dubious privilege of witnessing the arrest of another notorious book thief. This was William Jacques, alias Mr Santoro or David Fletcher and sometimes dubbed the “Tome Raider”. Subsequently described in the press as a “master of disguise”, the man I saw looked rather anonymous in a cheap blue anorak – which is, perhaps, the most effective look for a book thief. Over five years he had stolen books worth £1.1m from the London Library, Cambridge University Library and British Library, including works by Galileo and Newton. One book alone, an original of Malthus’s 1798 tome An Essay on the Principle of Population, was worth £40,000.

As I quietly worked in the Lindley Library, two uniformed police officers suddenly appeared and took him away. It transpired that the RHS’s vigilant librarians had noticed Jacques behaving suspiciously on previous visits. Jacques has since jumped bail and remains at large. As for librarians and security staff, rather than watching out for a “master of disguise” in a false beard, they would probably do better to look out for an average-looking guy who seems to be looking at books for no particular scholastic reason. For if he fits the profile of most book thieves, he is likely to strike again.

In newspaper reports of such crimes, epithets such as “gentlemen thieves” are liberally applied to men such as Hakimzadeh and Jacques. Typically, they are characterised as obsessed academics willing to do almost anything to obtain that ancient tome or map that will fill a gap on their bookshelves. Hakimzadeh’s defence revealed that he spent his wedding night polishing his beloved books, while Gosse offered his own love of books as mitigation for his crime. “I felt the books had been abandoned,” he said. He was given a suspended sentence, a €17,000 fine and was allowed to go back to his teaching job. The archbishop forgave the thief and said he would even allow him (supervised) access to the library.


The six stages of stealing

Martin Gill, who runs a private security consultancy company, tells his clients: “If you behave like a thief, you can find out where the weaknesses are.” Gill and his team undertake “penetration tests” on libraries, during which they simulate stealing, hiding or harming books.

Here, he outlines the key stages in a book thief’s thinking.

1 Choosing the target: one of the most striking findings from work with offenders is that when asked why they chose the target they did, they often said, “Because it was easy.”

2 Entering the target: one of the most important considerations for thieves is not to attract attention to themselves. Guards and others who make eye contact with thieves are a potential threat to them. Staff who are alert and give the appearance they will spot something and guards who appear engaged are a big problem for a thief.

3 Locating the item to steal: sometimes the thief will know exactly what he/she wants and so will head for the area where the item is located. Blind spots, created by high shelves, for example, can negate the fact that CCTV is present. For a thief the existence of security is only an issue if it cannot easily be overcome, and most of the time it can.

4 Method of taking the product: this may require some skill and there are various techniques thieves use. Getting a document out of a library may mean secreting it somewhere under the outer clothing or in a bag, perhaps containing goods purchased legitimately in a shop/café located on the premises.

5 Leaving the scene and getting away: among the things thieves need to do here are avoiding activating alarms and ensuring they have not been followed. They may rely on less than complete diligence in the way guards check people leaving a library. The thief can check this ahead of time simply by observing and getting to know the weak areas.

6 Disposal of goods: this is something an organisation can monitor. Checking second-hand outlets to see if any stolen items are being traded has proved fruitful in the past. Building up intelligence on the latest popular items being traded may also provide clues as to what is vulnerable to theft.

This is an edited version of a summary in ‘Security in Libraries: Matching Responses to Risks’, an essay in Liber Quarterly, vol 18 (2008), no 2, by Martin Gill;
For libraries, there is nothing at all romantic about the mutilation or theft of precious, often priceless books. Historically, they have tended to keep quiet about the problem, ostensibly for fear of attracting other thieves but quite possibly out of sheer embarrassment too. More recently, however, there are signs that they have begun publicly to face up to the reality of widespread book theft. Ben Sanderson, head of press at the British Library, says it deliberately did “a big media splash” after the Hakimzadeh case, hosting what he calls a “pre-sentencing press conference” for journalists. This would have been unthinkable a few years ago. “We went out of our way to send a strong message that we do not tolerate this and that we will pursue people regardless of their status,” he says.

The library also hosted a conference on library security last year, on behalf of Liber, the association of European research libraries. The agenda focused on prevention and protection and speakers from Washington’s Library of Congress and Bibliothèque Nationale de France shared their experiences. That conference was a one-off but such security-focused events for libraries and museums have become much more common – last week the annual, Smithsonian-sponsored National Conference on Cultural Property Protection took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Yet there is still no global security network for libraries and the need for more co-operation and openness is, perhaps, reflected in the fact that Hakimzadeh had form. In 1998 he was accused of stealing 94 items from the Royal Asiatic Society, another London library, and the matter was settled out of court. It is unlikely he would have been given privileged access in the British Library if this knowledge had been shared earlier.

Judith Barnes was appointed head of collection security at the British Library two years ago, following Hakimzadeh’s arrest. I meet her and Kristian Jensen, a Danish scholar who is head of British collections, in one of the library’s meeting rooms. Their anger over the Hakimzadeh case is still palpable. Jensen, an elegantly turned-out scholar in an immaculate grey suit, says: “Some of the items attacked by Mr Hakimzadeh belonged to Sir Joseph Banks [the celebrated 18th-century naturalist who accompanied Cook on his voyage to Australia] and are a part of British history. They have been destroyed.” He has chosen the word “attacked” carefully. I ask him how far libraries need to go to stop such acts. “We don’t want to be bullied by this situation,” he replies. “People need to be able to handle the collections freely.”

For libraries, the awkward fact is that such thefts can be extremely difficult to notice. Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley, a police officer with 23 years’ experience, has for the past eight years headed the Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit.

Rapley and his squad of three full-time officers recover on average £7m worth of stolen and laundered art and antiques (including books) each year, with items looted from Iraq a recent priority. Rapley also founded the London Museum Security Group (including libraries), which meets regularly, complementing initiatives such as the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association’s e-mail alert of books stolen from its members.

“Book theft is very hard to quantify because very often pages are cut and it’s not noticed for years,” says Rapley. “Often we come across pages from books [in hauls of recovered property] and we work back from there.” The Museum Security Network, a Dutch-based, not-for-profit organisation devoted to co-ordinating efforts to combat this type of theft, estimates that only 2 to 5 per cent of stolen books are recovered, compared with about half of stolen paintings.

“Books are extremely difficult to identify,” Rapley continues. “That means they can be sold commercially at near to market value rather than black-market value.” Thieves know that single pages cut from books to be sold as prints are easier to steal and even harder to trace, so they are often even more desirable than books themselves.

Most thieves simply cut out pages with razor blades and then hide them about their person. High bookshelves, quiet stacks or storage areas, or any lavatories located within reading rooms, are obvious places for such nefarious activities.

Regular users will have noticed that libraries have tightened up security in recent years. Among the strategies employed are CCTV cameras, improved sightlines for librarians, ID and bag checks at entrances and exits, and more floorwalking by security, uniformed or otherwise.

However, according to experienced security professionals such as Robert Wittman, formerly of the FBI’s national art crime team and now a private consultant, “[Libraries] should be diligent in their rare-book rooms – they need proper sign-in sheets and picture ID, and maybe metal detectors. Smiley [E Forbes Smiley III, one of the most notorious map thieves of recent years] was only caught when he dropped a metal knife on the floor of the Yale Library and someone noticed.”

Increasingly, library users are also being asked to be aware of what is going on around them. In the wake of the Hakimzadeh case, an open letter from the British Library appealed for such vigilance. “It was another reader who first alerted us to a book which had been used by Hakimzadeh,” says Judith Barnes.

Now we come to the elephant in the room: insider theft. The vast majority of library staff would, of course, never dream of stealing items in their care but evidence suggests that most thefts are committed by staff or trusted insiders. Ton Cremers, the voluble and forthright former head of security at the Rijksmuseum and founder of the Museum Security Network, was one of the first people to go public on this issue. He believes that “inside jobs” account for upwards of 70 per cent of all library theft in Europe and 80 per cent in the US.

In 2003 Cremers was called to the Army Museum in Delft, in the Netherlands, where it had been discovered that a rare book on Napoleon had had 47 of its 67 illustrations cut out. “I interviewed all the staff over three days but on the first day I knew who it was,” Cremers recalls. “The guy made so many mistakes – he was lying and contradicting himself.” It turned out that Alexander Polman, an ambitious young curator, had for at least seven years been stealing hundreds of books and thousands of prints from the museum and then selling them to a dealer in Leiden. Some of the items were donations that Polman had received on behalf of the museum and then pocketed, while others he simply took from the archives and put in his car, having arrived at work before anyone else. With access to the cataloguing system and the authority to alter it, he was able to cover his tracks. Polman served a year and a half in prison for the crime. He was last heard of working as a tour guide in Sardinia.

A more recent “trusted insider” case is also one of the most shocking. In February, David Slade, a respected Bristol-based dealer and former president of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, was jailed for 28 months for stealing 68 books worth £230,000 from Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, who had engaged him in 2001 to catalogue part of the family collection at Ascott, Buckinghamshire.

All the books he stole were extremely rare and valuable examples of books made by private book presses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Slade’s reputation in the trade was such that the books’ provenance was not questioned when he sold them through auction houses.

Cremers believes libraries have been slow to accept the possibility that a staff member may be the culprit. “They say they cannot work if they are not able to trust their staff. But the best way to trust them is to have a security system in place.” He cites the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, where all staff including top directors are searched whenever they leave the building. That may, however, have something to do with the fact that in 1992 the library closed its stacks to readers for ever on discovering that about 30,000 volumes were missing.

Whatever the systems in place, criminals do not always act rationally and there will always be surprises. As my meeting with Barnes and Jensen draws to a close, I ask whether there is anything else they want to tell me. After an exchange of glances, Barnes says simply, “Page 99.” It emerges that Hakimzadeh had cut from books a large number of single pages numbered 99 and 100. “We have never understood why he did that,” she says.

Openly challenging book theft is a bold move but it’s clear that many of its deepest mysteries will take a lot of solving.

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