The man who stole over a thousand originals and other book thieves  Splash

The man who stole over a thousand originals and other book thieves Splash

The collection of the mythical library of Alexandria did not only consist of copies bought, ordered or given away. Founded in the 3rd century BC Destroyed by fire probably a few hundred years later, the quest to collect all the world’s books in the Egyptian coastal city remains a symbol of the passion for knowledge.

As the Spaniard Irene Vallejo recalls in the excellent The Infinite in a Reed, unkind practices were part of gratifying the ambitions of the kings of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Bands of warriors roamed the nearby world, looting works they found along the way. When ships docked at Alexandria, the volumes brought on board were soon confiscated.

Theft was a method used by the Egyptians to give Alexandria the gigantism they wanted. Stealing coveted works is a practice that accompanies the book’s story. In 14thcentury England, Johannes Leycestre ended up on the gallows after stealing a small book from a certain church. Elois Pichler even had an overcoat with its own internal compartments to house the thousands of specimens he took from the St. Petersburg Public Library around the 1870s he was captured and exiled to Siberia.

John Gilkey, who until recently worked to donate rare items from antique dealers in the United States, argued, “If you have a bookshelf, the more books you fill it, the more books you want to fill it. The more valuable the books, the more beautiful the shelf.” The statement is made in The Man Who Loved Books Very Much, in which journalist Allison Hoover tells John’s story of literary banditry.

In the 19th century, in Spain, things were more tense. Don Vicente became famous as a monk who opened a bookshop full of old and valuable books in Barcelona after embezzling libraries from monasteries and convents wherever he went. It had a peculiar logic: in the store I bought a lot more than I sold. Only ordinary specimens advanced. Everything that was rare ended up in his private collection.

When he was unable to bid the highest bid at an auction for a treasure he had wanted for some time, this monk not only stole the book from the man who had won the dispute, but also set fire to the house of the man who he died charred. Revengefully, he stabbed nine other people who had taken part in the dispute. When asked by the jury for the reasons for not taking anyone’s money, only books, Don Vicente replied “because I’m not a thief”.

It’s not always that you see a Don Vicente out there. But in every pub where readers and writers meet, there are sometimes stories of acquaintances who proudly recall how in their youth—being young sounds like a reasonable excuse for many things—they had the ability to graft under their blouses to hide or stuff them in pockets… and backpacks. Pretending to borrow a friend’s book, knowing they’ll never return it, is another recurring and less risky way to obtain copies from private libraries.

I think of these literary thieves after reading the story of the Italian Filippo Bernardini, who goes to a very special place of looting. In recent years, Filippo has created more than 160 fake accounts to pose as agents and other professionals in the publishing world. With a talent for digital trickery, the now 30yearold managed to snag more than a thousand unpublished manuscripts. Apparently writers of the caliber of Ian McEwan and Margaret Atwood have fallen for their virtual villains.

As far as we know, the Italian never asked for money to keep the lyrics a secret, nor did he pass around the originals. Perhaps it’s even one for the gang of thieves who steal for the pleasure of a literary rarity (which only stays on that condition until such works win the first edition) or to satisfy intellectual ambitions.

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