- - Sunday, October 14, 2012

Any American book collector who recently bought an Italian book from the 15th to the 17th centuries should take another look at the purchase. If it bears a red library stamp with a Madonna in the center, the collector may get a visit from U.S. Customs agents assigned to recover stolen artworks.

An international alarm has gone out to recover rare works taken in one of the biggest book thefts in history.

The stolen books came from the Girolamini Library in Naples, one of the richest and oldest libraries in Italy. On trial in connection with the theft is Marino Massimo de Caro, the library’s director.

Mr. de Caro was arrested in May and charged with embezzlement along with four accomplices, including one from Argentina. At the time, it was thought that 1,500 books were missing from the library, of which 1,000 were found in storage in Verona, Mr. de Caro’s hometown.

Last week, however, the Italian press reported that the number of stolen books had climbed to more than 4,000, even as Mr. de Caro himself kept adding to the list during his trial. In a story headlined “Thief Ravaged Book Heritage,” the Milan newspaper Corriere della Sera described how volumes allegedly were taken away by the truckload at night.

In a recent news conference, Col. Raffaele Mancino, who heads the Italian police unit that investigates art thefts, called the Girolamini “a sacred place, at least for bibliophiles, in particular because it conserves priceless [ancient] scientific works.”

Dealers in rare books have been warned by the past president of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, Arnoud Gerits, to double-check the provenance of purchases of “mostly Italian books from the 15th to the 17th centuries if these volumes were purchased in the time period January to May 2012.”

Mr. Gerits said in his message that books missing from the library already have been “confiscated” by authorities in London, Tokyo, Munich and New York.

Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the agency that normally would investigate the theft of foreign artwork and antiques in the U.S., said Thursday that while the agency would not deny it had recovered stolen books from the theft, it does not generally reveal details of its investigations.

“It seems safe to say it’s big and it’s ugly,” said Garrett Scott, a bookseller in Ann Arbor, Mich., who is chairman of the security committee of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. “I’m not sure how many books have come into the United States or whether they were recovered from auction houses, dealers, institutions or collectors. Understandably, most parties, even when cooperating, basically want to keep a low profile.”

Meanwhile, the Girolamini Library thefts continued to broaden in scope and severity. What emerged was a narrative of large-scale dealing in stolen rare books and manuscripts with Mr. de Caro allegedly the main supplier, but involving dealers in several countries.

The total number of detainees is now eight, including the library’s curator, Father Sandro Marsano, who is from the church and monastery of which the library is a part.

Father Marsano is alleged to have permitted the thefts.

“Stealing the most important volumes,” reported Corriere della Sera, “entailed moving about 100,000 other books and altering the ancient catalogs, which were cut and scraped to cover up the thefts. The damage may be irreparable.”

Meanwhile, the Italian Bookselling Organization, ALAI, has issued its own alert. ALAI named three Italian booksellers, and said anyone who had purchased any items from any of them should contact the police.

The case has political implications in Italy because even before the theft was discovered, the Italian government was widely criticized by historians and bibliophiles for appointing Mr. de Caro as head of the library. They said he was not qualified — particularly after the media published stories claiming Mr. de Caro’s academic credentials were false. They said he also was not the Count of Lampedusa, as he had styled himself.

It has come out during the trial that he was responsible for several heists from other libraries — notably a 1606 book by Galileo, “Le Operazione del compasso geometrico e militate” (“The Operations of the Geometric and Military Compass”), dedicated to Cosimo II de Medici, the ruler of Tuscany.

Only two copies of the book were known to exist in Italy, one in the library of the University of Padua, and the other in the abbey of Monte Cassino. Mr. de Caro is accused of stealing both.

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