March 2, 2015

Stolen 400-year-old books to be returned to Italian library


Two rare books are making their way back to their rightful home in an Italian library. © alpimages / via Shutterstock

Two rare books are making their way back to their rightful home in an Italian library.
© alpimages / via Shutterstock

Following a journey halfway around the world, two rare books—whose content remains mostly unknown—have been returned to their home in Italy. Steve Rubenstein and Kevin Fagan report for the San Francisco Chronicle that the Italian texts are just two of nineteen stolen artifacts uncovered by a recent nationwide sweep by Homeland Security.

The search for the books—Stirpium Historiae (“Stock History”) and Rariorum Plantarum Historia Anno 1601 (“History of Rare Plants 1601”) goes back a couple years; they were reported stolen from the Italian Historical National Library of Agriculture, and in July 2013, Homeland Security agents received a tip that they had been purchased by a Bay Area collector, who handed them over to federal agents. David Prince (special agent in charge at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in San Francisco) confirms that the collector, not having realized that the texts were ill-gotten, isn’t in any trouble for his part in this, which is also why he hasn’t been identified by name.

After sitting in a vault for a year, the two books were sent on the Homeland Security’s New York office and are on their way back to the agricultural library. They now number among the more than 7,200 artifacts returned to over thirty countries by the department since 2007. Italian objects in particular are frequent targets of theft: Rubenstein and Fagan write that “in 2012, federal investigators recovered so many statues and ceramics in Delaware that they took over a 4,000-square-foot gallery to display them to the public.”

Throughout the Chronicle’s story, the running theme is that over this years-long odyssey covering some 6,200 miles, nobody actually read the books in question:

The collector said he had the books but apparently had never read the books, because simply opening a 400-year-old volume can damage it…

While they were in the San Francisco vault, not far from Prince’s office, he did not open them. No one else in the office did, either…

A press aide to the Italian ambassador, Antonio Bartoli, was there and said none of the overjoyed Italians, himself included, had opened the books. “It was a symbolic ceremony,” Bartoli said. “I am not interested in a treatise on plants.”

Despite the fact that—because of the fragility of the books and the relative lack of enthusiasm over their subject matter—nobody’s been thumbing through the pages, Stirpium Historiae and Rariorum Plantarum Historia Anno 1601 could be worth up to $1,250 and $2,125, based on what other copies have gone for.

Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.