A Typophile’s Notes Books

The book thieves

Coming soon to a theatre near you: two biblio movies

Who could have imagined that the next big Hollywood movie was going to be about a rare book heist, or that an actual rare book heist would take its cue from Mission Impossible? The just released American Animals happens to bea movie about a bunch of college misfits trying to rob the rare book library of an American university, while that rather audacious real-life robbery of expensive rare books last year from a London warehouse featured three thieves who broke into the place by rappelling down the roof’s skylight, skilfully dodging motion sensors, in the stunt that Ethan Hunt-Tom Cruise made famous.

In American Animals, which also happens to be a true story, they don’t quite get away with it (no spoilers — this is clear from the beginning), while in the warehouse heist, they do; making away with books worth 2.5 million dollars.

Gone missing

Everything about this warehouse rare book theft remains a mystery: who were they, who hired them, and how did they know of this cache of rarities stowed away in an otherwise nondescript warehouse? One more nagging question persists: where are the books now, and why have they not surfaced in the market? If they were not stolen to be sold, why were they taken?

A year later it’s slowly becoming clear that the whole thing was very possibly masterminded by a collector who desired these books. That explains why the books have stayed hidden — they were taken not for profit but to disappear into the private collection of a collector.

On the other hand, the motive of the kids in the movie feels straightforward enough, if amateurish: it was to be a dare. Could they do it, and still profit from it? What starts out full of swagger and bravado turns into a comic nightmare as things go wrong.

Unlike art objects where the security is sophisticated and high-end, rare books, prints and maps are an easy — or easier — target. Valuable books often disappear from bookshops, book fairs, storages, libraries and even private collections. They are vulnerable in a way other pricey collected objects are not. Every now and then alerts pop up on the rare book world radar, indicating books that have gone missing.

The alerts list and describe the books, noting ownership marks in them, so that when a bookseller is approached with this stolen loot, he or she can sound the alarm.

Sometimes bookseller codes are shared — these are minuscule acquisition notations in pencil in some corner of the book that the thief will miss or ignore, but something other booksellers can watch out for if a suspicious lot of rare books comes their way for sale.

Typically, the more experienced book thief will not offer his recent loot to the market, but wait a few years before trying to sell, in the hope that not everyone will remember these books had once been reported stolen or missing.

In India, we had our own Stephen Blumberg who, you will remember, as that notorious book thief who stole more than a million dollars’ worth of rare books from several libraries.

Our little desi Blumberg went by the name of Bharani, but this was probably not even his real name. He wore long, shabby coats with deep pockets stitched everywhere to slip books into.

He scorned our bookshops as offering nothing in the way of rare books (which was, and is, true), and confined himself to prowling the institutional libraries across India. He had a fake identity card made out as Professor John Vidyasagar and presented himself as a numismatics scholar to librarians.

Our own Bharani

Unlike Blumberg, Bharani did not lick away the glue from library card pockets and labels but applied some sort of chemical mix he had concocted himself to make those traces disappear. Or he would painstakingly erase out perforation stamps and other telltale ex-libris marks. He was a skilful book restorer and was able to discard pedestrian library bindings, and replace the valuable antiquarian volumes in a simple but elegant contemporary binding.

And then he would offer them for sale abroad to unsuspecting European collectors. Bharani has not been seen or heard from in some years now — some say he was caught trying to make off with some precious government artefact and is serving a jail sentence somewhere, others say they know for a fact that he has returned to his ancestral home in Mauritius and lives in some anonymity there.

American Animals is not the only book-themed movie this season; Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop is finally a movie. This slim novel published in 1978 about a woman who risks opening a bookshop in a small town has earned a small but devoted following, and this movie version will give this obscure literary gem a little more traction. There’s a sentiment in the book, caught nicely in the movie, that all bibliophiles will give fervent assent to: “You’re never lonely in a bookshop.”

The writer is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 1:47:07 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/the-book-thieves/article24228317.ece

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