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Thief pulled off Carnegie Library book heist over 'extended period'

Megan Guza
| Tuesday, March 20, 2018, 4:01 p.m.
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland.
Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh in Oakland.

How does one steal more than 300 rare books and items from a room under constant surveillance as well as lock and key? Probably slowly, over a period of time – like other infamous book heists.

Though investigators have released no names, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh officials have indicated that detectives with the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office have suspects in the theft of 314 rare books, maps, folios and other items.

"This theft occurred over an extended period of time by knowledgeable individuals," Carnegie Library spokeswoman Suzanna Thinnes said in a statement.

Library officials discovered the theft in spring 2017 during an insurance appraisal but, until recently, remained tight-lipped. Even now, nearly a year later, officials and detectives have revealed little about the theft.

The items were taken from the library's Oliver Room , which is in a restricted area of the main library in Oakland, Thinnes said. The individual previously responsible for the Oliver Room's collection is no longer employed by the library.

One of the missing books listed is a 1687 first edition of Isaac Newton's "Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica" from London. A copy of that book alone sold for $3.7 million in 2016, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The goal, Thinnes said, is to recover the stolen items, for which the library declined to give an estimated value. History, however, suggests the accounting could be difficult. The books are sold to dealers who go on to sell the books again. Some are sold at auction.

Arlan Hess, owner of City Books on Pittsburgh's North Side, said she only accepts book trade-ins for store credit.

"It would be almost impossible for anyone to fence the stolen texts through City Books," she said Tuesday. "The theft is a shocking loss for the Carnegie collection and for Pittsburgh. I reviewed the list and I had no idea some of those texts and maps were in the collection. I would've loved to have seen them. Maybe one day, I will have another chance."

A list of books stolen from Carnegie Library.

Anders Burius was the head of the National Library of Sweden when he stole at least 56 rare books between 1995 and 2004, when he was caught after nearly 10 years of thefts, according to the FBI. He confessed to authorities and killed himself, after which 13 books were returned to the library.

In 2015, two more of the stolen books surfaced in New York City , but the rest remain missing.

Near the same time, between the early 1990s and 2002, William Jacque stole more than 400 rare works from the Cambridge University Library in London. Several dozen were found in lock boxes to which Jacque directed investigators, but hundreds were never found, according to BBC.

He started all over again upon his release from jail in 2004 and began stealing from the Lindley Library of the Royal Horticultural Society. He was caught again, but not for another three years . Those books – 13 volumes of Nouvelle Iconographie des Camellias – have also never been recovered.

Most recently, in early 2017, three unknown thieves rapelled through a skylight at Heathrow Airport in London and stole $2.5 million worth of rare books being stored at the warehouse en route to the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, according to Sky News.

The thieves belayed the 160 books back through the skylight and then climbed out themselves.

In Pittsburgh, Hess wondered if the Carnegie Library heist was a one-person job.

"Imagine the total value of all the lost pieces," she said.

Staff writer Ben Schmitt contributed. Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519, or via Twitter @meganguzaTrib.

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