Monday, July 23, 2018

The recent breaking news in Pittsburgh

A recent addition to my collection: something I have no wish to sell.
Jerome, Commentery on Hosea; Caroline minuscule.

The recent revelations of the depth and breadth of the thefts of rare books, plates, and leaves from the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh have been breathtaking. The dollar amount that has been quoted, at just over eight million dollars, is stunning, if only as a reminder that I am really only a small-time dealer.

I won’t take any position on the guilt or innocence of the specific parties who have been charged here: I will assume and hope that the wheels of justice will roll on to whatever verdicts ought to be reached. But the charges that have been brought are themselves a reminder that one of the great dangers (if not the single greatest danger) to public collections of rare books, manuscripts, and archival materials is theft from inside—one recent claim I’ve seen is that insider thefts account for about one-third of such thefts.

Often enough, as I have transitioned from academic scholar to rare book and manuscript dealer, I’ve been greeted by academics with skepticism or disdain: anyone who deals in (or even owns) fragments, the message has often seemed to be, is necessarily a participant in the breaking up of valuable books and artifacts of historic importance. It’s true enough that some dealers do break up books, but that should no more be used as a brush to tar the whole field of manuscript dealers than the existence of some academic or librarian book-thieves should be used to condemn all manuscript scholars and librarians.

Because of course, not all scholars and librarians are villains, even if some of them are (I am remembering now the case of Anthony Melnikas, whose story broke at Ohio State not long after I got my degree there in 1994). Nor are all dealers villains, even if some are. There is no reason at all for dealers or collectors and academics to see themselves as opposed on these issues: almost all dealers, collectors, and scholars, in my experience, truly value manuscripts and rare books as elements of our shared human cultural heritage. 

One of the tragedies of the Carnegie case, of course, is that many items were cut from their bindings and apparently marketed as individual pieces, potentially scattering them to the four winds. One cannot avoid the suspicion that cutting such items away from their contexts anonymizes them, potentially making them easier to sell, because they are more difficult to trace.

I’ve written before about individual leaves as refugees, ripped from their proper contexts, victims of violence through no fault of their own. One need not support book-breakers or thieves to believe that such refugees might be taken in and valued. But this case can remind us all that it is not only dealers who engage in such cutting. And even a small-time dealer like me has been known to return stolen or looted material that was purchased innocently or inadvertently. 

In my own business, I have sometimes purchased individual (i.e. cut) leaves, though I prefer to focus on materials re-used in bindings. And I’ve committed, as a dealer and a collector, to not break up books or lots that I personally own.

And I’ve sometimes gone farther, engaging in rescue-buying, purchasing complex lots or multiple related lots from a single seller, when I felt that the pieces ought to stay together. This has not always been a wise financial decision on my part, I suspect. How fortunate I am, though, to have been able to make some decisions that weren’t entirely driven by the logic of profit. In such cases, I try to be guided by what is best for the items. Even a collection of cut leaves, sometimes, can make up a whole that shouldn’t be broken.

But then, I am still a collector at heart, one who believes that collectors—and their collections, public and private—can still do good in the world, even if there are some people out there who sometimes take advantage of such utopian and altruistic thinking. A personal collection can still be a real refuge for rare items, a place of protection, perhaps especially for items that are not especially valuable.

I’ve looked over the list of items missing from the Carnegie Library; I purchased none of those books or items, a circumstance for which I am thankful. In part, I’ve been protected from that fate by being only a small time dealer and collector. But I’ve also been reminded how important it is for all of us to do what’s best for our books: both those we own, and those in our local libraries, where we also share some care taking responsibilities. 

Because I can’t help feeling that, if only I had gone up to the Carnegie to look at some of their rare books, the fact that some of them were missing or damaged might have been discovered a little sooner, before quite so much damage was done.

The other side of the above fragment, showing both how it once
lay along the spine of a binding and how (more recently, I'd guess)
it seems to have been affected by a rusty paper clip.
Note: the image is a bit blurry here.