Books | June 20, 2020 12:42 pm

Antiquarian Book Experts Snared in Literary Heist

Fallout settles from the theft of numerous rare books

The Carnegie Library
Pittsburgh's Carnegie Library.
Dllu/Creative Commons

When you think of a heist, where does your mind go? It’s likely that banks are what comes to mind; perhaps valuable works of art, or something else  that would translate into a thrilling action movie or epic true crime podcast. But sometimes, heists can take place on a smaller scale — and sometimes their quarries are a little more literary.

Writing at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Marylynne Pitz and Paul Ward have the story of an unorthodox series of thefts that shocked the rare book community. On Friday, two men were sentenced in connection with the case: John Schulman of Oakland’s Caliban Book Shop in and Greg Priore of the Carnegie Library’s rare book room. At stake? Millions of dollars’ worth of books and related materials. As Pitz and Ward phrase it:

In July 2018, both men were charged with stealing and cannibalizing the library’s rare books, then selling off individual hand-colored plates, photographs, maps and prints. Kerry-lee Jeffery, an appraiser with Pall Mall Art Advisors, discovered the theft of about 300 plus items in April 2017 and valued the loss at more than $8 million.

In a particularly ironic touch, Schulman is a onetime member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America’s ethics committee. Both defendants pleaded guilty as part of a plea agreement.

In the end, both were sentenced to spells of home confinement: Schulman to 4 years, and Priore to 3 years. Both men also received 12 years’ probation each. The judge who sentenced both men cited the pandemic for what he considered to be relatively light sentences. Schulman must also pay $55,731 in restitution to people who unknowingly purchased books that had been stolen.

Crime sprees can take many forms, and while experts in antiquarian books might not look like the Danny Ocean type. Then again, misdirection is essential to the world’s most memorable heists; why not here as well?

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