Thursday, September 05, 2013

A bibliophilic thriller

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, crime, books, libraries

The urge to collect is oddly human. Few other animals collect objects, and those that do, such as nesting birds, do not maintain permanent collections, nor become hoarders. What is the difference between a hoard and a collection? The index. Thus, libraries and museums result from turning hoards and accumulations into collections.

Huge industries subsist and even prosper from the urge to collect. Interestingly, the priciest objects, in monetary terms, are those that have no other value except as something collected. Fine art is at the top of the scale. A somewhat distant second is rare books and manuscripts. I wonder if the reason that a unique book sells for less than a unique painting or sculpture is that it has a use: you can read it, and the books that command the highest prices are those nobody would read. I just checked "first edition" on eBay and sorted by price. There are 7 items, out of about a million, with an asking price of $950,000 or greater. All for books you wouldn't be obtaining for reading purposes.

Even in bad times, collectors spend a lot, and in the worst of times, the wealthiest collectors continue to spend, unfazed by the poor economy. Some spend more, hoping for bargains as people who are running out of money auction off their treasures. Thus, the most lucrative period for book thieves was the Great Depression of the 1930s. A particular theft, of a nearly unread book, in 1931 led to a sea change in the attitude of librarians and law enforcement about book theft. Unraveling the case cracked open a ring of book thieves and crooked dealers, the most notorious up to that time, as chronicled in Thieves of Book Row: New York's Most Notorious Rare Book Ring and the Man Who Stopped it, by Travis McDade.

Edgar Allen Poe lived only 40 years, and was an active author for about 22 years: his first publications were poems, from 1827, and his first prose story was published in 1832. His second published poetry collection, a tiny volume really, was Al Aaraaf, Tamerlane and Minor Poems, in 1829. The edition of 400 was poorly received, and most were discarded unsold. Fewer than twenty copies survive, but the most celebrated has come to be a copy that made its way to the New York Public Library, via the Lenox Library, upon its opening in 1911. Ignored for 20 years, and protected by security practices that were exceptional for the times, it was nonetheless stolen in January 1931, whence began a hunt that crossed several state lines, though the book itself did not.

The book itself is inconsequential. Thieves and crooked book dealers (in the 1920s and 1930s, that term was a redundancy) know that it isn't worthwhile stealing the rarest, most valuable books, because every copy is well known, so to whom can you sell it without being arrested? A book having between 10 and 100 or so known exemplars is a safer target, and worth the trouble of bleaching or otherwise erasing the library marks (there are always library marks, even in this era of electronic 'tattle tape' protection systems).

And why steal from libraries? It is a great deal safer than stealing from a personal library, because libraries are public! Turn-of-the-Century America was in the midst of a shift in rare book possession. Prior to about 1900, a bibliophile could amass a costly book collection, and might sometimes sell some, but more usually, his (very rarely, her) heirs would auction the estate through an established book house. The book dealers were used to selling and re-selling the same book as it passed from private collection to private collection. The notion of establishing a legacy, and of endowment, began taking hold in late Victorian times, however, and the book collectors' heirs were more likely to donate the books to a major library. Perhaps the collector, upon finding no heir who loved books as he did, would will them to a library. Once there, they were typically there forever.

Of course, libraries weed out their stacks periodically, but do not discard their rarities. Those are intended to remain for eternity, for the benefit of scholars. So by about 1920, book dealers were faced with a thinning supply of rare, and thus pricy, books. A few began to commission thefts. Other thieves took note, and got into the book "business". Before long, any dealer who remained in business had learned not to inquire too closely into the source of a box or bag of books at very attractive prices.

Library "security" practices, being nearly nonexistent, allowed a brisk trade in these moderately rare books. Only a few libraries made much attempt to stem the tide. NYPL was one, with an effective system. But the system did have a few tiny holes, and a certain book thief and two accomplices must have thought the stars had all lined up perfectly when they were able to obtain the library's copy of Al Aaraaf and two other books of similar value, and get them out the door (down 3 stories and across a large, crowded, echoing hallway). The 3 books were soon in a safe owned by Harry Gold, where at least the Poe book sat until its retrieval many months later.

I found it hard to figure out who was "the man who stopped it." I find it a tossup between G. William Bergquist and Felix Ranlett. Seems it took them both. Ranlett was in Boston, at the outskirts of the book ring's activity. In the juiciest sentence in the book, McDade writes, regarding a related theft in Boston, "In the grand tradition of library theft, a person with little prior experience in the subject was assigned to handle the matter for the [Boston Public Library]."

Once the action returns to New York, Bergquist is at its center, so I suppose he is the one. Certainly, he engineered the turning of a certain Babyface Mahoney into a cooperating stooge, and the arrest of a certain Harold Clarke and eventually Harry Gold, who were behind the Poe theft, though the thief was Sam Dupree, in their pay.

It has been written, most famously by Doc Smith who wrote the Lensman books, that what technology can create, technology can duplicate or defeat. Tattle tapes and other electronic measures are the current weapons of choice in the arms race to reduce library book theft. A recent estimate is that major libraries lose about 5% of their rare book collections annually. That is about half what the figure was a century ago. There is a trade-off between the cost of better security systems, and the cost of just buying replacement copies. Most first editions sell in the range of a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Hiring armed security costs $100,000 yearly, or more, and you can replace a lot of lost books for that. The system most small libraries use costs $20,000 to install and set up, and a few thousand yearly to maintain.

Thieves is a joy to read. McDade has the rare talent to pack a book with facts and keep the writing enjoyable. The book doesn't look large, but it is densely set in 9pt type, so there is a lot there, backed up by about 400 notes and references. Well worth the reading.

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