June 19, 2015

Books stolen by the “Suicide Librarian” repatriated to Sweden




In the latest development of a decades-long story of grand literary theft, a repatriation ceremony for two books recently took place at an unusual venue; the U.S. Attorney’s office in New York City. The books, which were turned over by Cornell University and Martayan Lam Rare Bookstore in Manhattan, were the latest recovered items stolen from the Swedish Royal Library, which authorities have been slowly recovering for the last decade.

The FBI’s press release details how and when the books were recovered:

The books being returned today are a Christopher Scheiner book entitled “Oculus, hoc est: fundamentum opticum, in quo ex accurate oculi anatome, abstrusarum experientiarum sedula pervestigatione,” printed in 1619 by Danielem Agricolam Oeniponti (the “Scheiner book”), and a Nicolo Sabbattini book entitled “Practica di fabricar scene, e machine ne’teatri. Ristampata di nouo coll’ Aggiunta del secondo libro,” printed in 1638 by Battista Giouannelli Pietro de’Paoli e Gio (the “Sabbatini book”). The Scheiner book, which is a famous work in the history of optics, was purchased on May 28, 1999, by bookseller Jonathan A. Hill, who had no knowledge of the book’s theft. Mr. Hill subsequently sold the Scheiner book to Cornell University, which also had no knowledge of the book’s theft, and which, after being contacted by the FBI about the theft, voluntarily agreed to return the book to the Library. The Sabbatini book, an important work concerning stagecraft and theater machinery, was purchased on November 19, 2001, by Richard Lan, a gallery owner in New York. Lan had no knowledge of the Sabbatini book’s theft and, after being contacted by the FBI about the theft, voluntarily agreed to return the book to the Library.

These books, as well as at least 50 more including 17th-century editions of Leviathan and John Donne, were stolen between 1995 and 2004 by Anders Burius, a former chief of the manuscript division at the Swedish Royal Library. For years Burius removed dozens of rare books from this and other libraries, always being sure to remove them from the library’s catalog as well to avoid provoking alarm. He then removed any identifying library markings, then sold them to rare book dealers using an alias.

Which isn’t to say that Burius was inconspicuous. According to a New York Times report:

Although Mr. Burius’s colleagues were sometimes curious about how he could afford Armani suits, silk ties, Cuban Cohibas and a Mercedes, they were astonished to learn of his systematic looting, according to press reports in Sweden.

Attempts to recover Burius’ stolen books have proceeded very slowly. The first book to be found, the earliest printed atlas of the Americas wasn’t recovered until 2012. The dolorous pace can be attributed to the untimely death of the one man who could point them in the right direction, which is to say Burius himself, who committed suicide after his thefts were discovered, leading Bloomberg to tastefully dub him the “Suicide Librarian”.

When a rare map of the Mississippi River was requested by a patron, it was promptly reported missing, as Burius had forgotten to destroy the catalog card. He soon became the prime suspect and promptly confessed.

After his thefts were discovered in 2004, he was arrested, questioned and released to await a court date. Five days later Mr. Burius, 48, went into the kitchen of his fifth-floor apartment, slit his wrists and cut a gas line. Within hours a stray spark set off an explosion that blew out the walls, spewing debris, injuring 11 and forcing 44 people to be evacuated from his central Stockholm neighborhood.

Though Burius provided a full and detailed list of the stolen works before his death, it became clear as the investigation proceeded how minimal diligence was practiced by the dealers, including German auction house Ketterer Kunst, who bought the stolen goods, often requesting the bare minimum as proof of ownership.

He told the police that he was never asked to show proof of the books’ provenance and that he was always paid in cash. Mr. Burius said he believed “that the auction firm understood that he didn’t have the right to sell them,” according to a 2008 Swedish government report.

The map of the Mississippi which led to Burius’ downfall has since been recovered, along with several other volumes and even an antique astrolabe which Burius is strongly suspected to have stolen from a castle outside of Stockholm.

The investigation by the library is still grinding forward, so to any of you rare book dealers out there; check the stolen list, and make sure you don’t traffic in any stolen manuscripts. Or, if you do, get ready to lose some money. It’s only a matter of time before the Swedes send whoever their version of Indiana Jones is to horsewhip you repeatedly while yelling “DET HÖR HEMMA I ETT MUSEUM”. Fair warning.

Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.