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Coping with Theft, Vandalism, Deterioration, and Bad Press

9. Picking Up the PiecesThe Lengthy Saga of a Library Theft
Jean W Ashton

On July 5, 1994, the Tuesday following Independence Day weekend, Consuelo Dutschke, a curator who had been engaged in cataloging Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library's collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, went into the secured vault of the closed stacks to consult Western MS 29, a codex she had been working on several weeks before. To her surprise, although the preservation case was on the shelf in its proper place, the box was empty. After a few moments of conversation with other senior staff members to make sure that the manuscript had not been removed for some legitimate reason, she came into my office with two colleagues to report that we apparently had a major problem. A cursory shelf check had revealed that in addition to Western MS 29, several other manuscripts usually housed on adjacent shelves were also missing from their cases, including at least two that had been examined by readers and reshelved by staff in early June.

Although we sensed that something unusual was happening, I decided to delay mentioning Consuelo's discovery to the staff as a whole until after we had gathered more information. While the three curators, joined by the remaining member of the internal administrative staff, began to read the Medieval-Renaissance shelves, card catalogs in hand, I went down to the Columbia University libraries administrative office to alert the university librarian to the possibility of a serious theft.

More than six years later, the consequences of this theft of what eventually turned out to be $1.3 million worth of books and manuscripts were still with us. We suffered a severe loss: some of our materials were still missing, and many could not be recovered intact because they had been mutilated. Moreover, efforts to deal with the crime and its prolonged aftermath were time consuming and upsetting for the staff. Nonetheless, by now we are able to see some positive effects from what was a profoundly negative experience.

First, thanks to the hard work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the New York City Police Department, the U.S. Attorney's office, and the international community of booksellers and manuscript dealers, the thief was apprehended, sentenced, and removed from his chosen sphere of criminal activity for a number of years. [1] Second, issues relating to the safety of library materials temporarily assumed a greater importance on the campus than had been the case before, resulting in the installation of an electronic security system in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the establishment of a standing committee to deal with general collection loss, reexamination of insurance practices, and better communications between librarians and the university's legal and security staffs. Finally a landmark opinion from the federal judge, Lewis A. Kaplan, who presided over the sentencing hearing, articulated with great clarity to the public at large the serious implications of the theft of cultural materials. We understand that his decision to depart upward from the recommended sentencing guidelines has had a measurable impact on courts across the county. I hope, in the brief paragraphs that follow, both to tell the story of the United States v. Daniel Spiegelman and to offer some comments that may serve to guide others who may find themselves in similar situations, [2]

Within an hour of the discovery that Western MS 29 was missing from the shelf, the associate librarian was in contact with the Columbia University security office, the 26th Precinct of the New York City Police Department, and, shortly thereafter, the regional office of the FBI. Fortunately—or rather, unfortunately—the Columbia libraries had been victim of two thefts of restricted materials in the five years preceding 1994 (although quite different ones and on a much smaller scale), and we thus had some idea of the protocols and procedures to be followed. My own experiences at the New-York Historical Society where I had been librarian before coming to Columbia in 1993, had also made me particularly aware of the institutional sensitivities that could make legal action difficult if the issue was not handled quickly and carefully. The Blumberg case, with its disappointing outcome for libraries, had only recently been settled. [3] It was therefore gratifying to see that Columbia's librarian had no hesitation in urging us to make sure that the crime was reported and that the relevant Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) procedural guidelines be followed to the letter.

As soon as the inventory was finished, a list of the fourteen missing medieval codices and fragments and the eight Arabic manuscripts that had disappeared from an adjacent shelf was compiled and sent to our contacts in the rather tight community of dealers and scholars who might be likely to come across such items or happen upon them in the market. Within a few days, we had refined and amplified the list by adding what secondary cataloging information we had in our files along with, in some cases, photographs or photocopies. We made sure that the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America, the International Foundation for Art Research, and the relevant professional e-mail lists that we subscribed to also had copies of the list. I think it safe to say that within two weeks, most of the scholarly world interested in such things knew as much about the Columbia losses as we did.

As might be expected, the internal consequences of our theft were distressing and unpleasant. Members of the staff were fingerprinted and questioned; lists of former employees were compiled and reviewed; security and lock-up practices were subjected to scrutiny. For months, insurance adjusters, law enforcement officials from a variety of units, and university administrators were likely to show up at any time of the day for tours of the restricted areas. Registration logs were examined, locks were changed, and keys were confiscated. Personnel practices, which had been fairly strict to begin with, were tightened so that no staff member was permitted in the stacks alone. Everyone was a potential suspect. Although the tension eased after a while as the day-to-day work of the library resumed, it was only after the thief was identified and caught, and his means of egress reported, that people were entirely confident that they or their colleagues had not been in some way responsible for the loss.

Reconciling the need to get full information to the book community with administrative pressure to maintain institutional privacy presented a major problem that also affected the staff. Some alumni, donors, and faculty members were upset and were filled with unfounded suspicions when news of the theft reached them. Others were even more upset when they felt they were not being fully informed. The need to monitor the general flow of information about the theft kept everyone on edge. Although the university's public information office was responsible for press relations, reporters were likely to call librarians or faculty members directly and it was hard not to blurt out some comment that might mislead the public or hinder the investigation. Even after the suspect was arrested, great care had to be taken not to say or do something that might jeopardize the Columbia case.

Throughout 1994 and early 1995, we worked closely with the detective from the local precinct and with the special agent from the FBI. Several promising leads turned out to be useless, and on one occasion a "sting" operation that had been set up and involved crossing state lines failed at the last minute because of some confusion about the appraised value of the particular items involved. Empty manuscript boxes were found in another area of the rare book stacks on a different floor, but because we did not think the two disappearances were related, we found it particularly painful to report the second, because it was beginning to seem even to us as if we had completely lost control of the collections.

Late in the spring of 1995, to our relief, I began to get telephone calls from a series of highly reputable manuscript dealers in Western Europe—from Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands—reporting that a young man who apparently had several pseudonyms had shown them pictures or given them descriptions of items that corresponded to items on our list. Finally in June 1995, Sebastiaan S. Hesselink, the owner of Antiquariaat FORUM in Utrecht, called me on a Wednesday to report that a customer had brought him a picture and description of a manuscript of the Roman de la Rose that he recognized from the Columbia list. I notified the FBI, which was able to mobilize Interpol in time to arrest Daniel Spiegelman the following afternoon when he returned to the shop, manuscript in hand. The arrest was reported by the Associated Press and the New York Times on June 17, 1995.

But the story was far from over. Daniel Spiegelman, who had in his possession several Columbia identification cards, issued under a variety of names, as well as dealer catalogs and information files, was not, as we had wrongly suspected, a student or rare book specialist. Rather, he was a felon who had served time in a federal institution on forgery charges some years earlier. Sensitized by his unpleasant experience in an American jail, he fought hard against the prospect of extradition to the United States. According to later stories in the Dutch newspapers, he had tried to commit suicide on the way to jail when he was arrested. When a detailed plan of escape was thwarted, he was put into a high-security facility. Eventually in an apparent attempt to gain clemency by trading information, he revealed to investigators in the Nether lands that he had several caches of stolen items hidden in New York.

We were appalled to discover that the scope of Spiegelman's theft was so broad. We had focused on the medieval and Arabic items, which had been stored in a single location. Now, materials turned up in his storage boxes and in the photographs found in his possession that we had not known were missing: 237 maps from a very rare German edition of the 1667 Blaue atlas that had been extra-illustrated by an illustrious Columbia alumnus in the early nineteenth century with his own collection of early maps and charts and had been on display only a few months earlier; miscellaneous medieval and early modern indentures; presidential and early Federal period letters, including a note from George Washington to John Jay on the occasion of the first session of the first meeting of the Supreme Court; and stock certificates from Thomas Edison's early business ventures. We felt as if we had discovered the theft all over again and felt doubly vulnerable at the evidence that he had razored materials out of bound volumes and penetrated deep into drawers and boxes of material that were in the midst of files or document cases used only by specialized researchers. It took us more than six months to gather accurate information about the missing materials and to confirm ownership of them in a way that would satisfy the law enforcement authorities and the courts.

Despite the efforts of the accused thief and his attorneys, extradition papers were prepared for submission in the beginning of December 1995. At Columbia, because the counsel's office had no one assigned to the case, we were dependent on calls from the police or the FBI for information about what was going on. Suddenly on the last business day of the year, a television news station in Oklahoma telephoned the Rare Book and Manuscript Library to ask for comment on a story that had appeared that day in the Dutch press: Daniel Spiegelman's lawyer claimed that an American embassy official had revealed that the FBI was investigating a possible link between his client and the Oklahoma City bombing the previous April.

The FBI denied the allegation, but the most sensational of the Amsterdam papers gave it full coverage. A published photograph of Spiegelman, described as a suspected American terrorist, was accompanied by the familiar image of smoke and burning buildings. Releasing the story was, so we were led to believe, a ploy by Spiegelman's attorney to buy time, because the Dutch will not extradite anyone who might be accused of a capital crime in his or her home country. It was a pretty spectacular form of defense, and it succeeded. No connection between the accused and the bombings was established, but the extradition was delayed for twelve months. Spiegelman was not returned to New York until December 1996, a year and a half after his arrest.

In April 1997, after being indicted for the theft of $1.3 million worth of books and manuscripts from Columbia (along with additional charges relating to the transport of weapons across state lines and a forged passport), Daniel Spiegelman entered into a plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney He did not reveal the location of any stolen material that had not at that time been returned, but we were finally given some clue as to how he had stolen the items in the first place. For various reasons, information could not be freely shared by the law enforcement agencies, but we have surmised and now believe that he shinnied up an unused dumbwaiter shaft that extended from a public area of the general stacks to the rare book floor and had used tools to dismantle existing walls, reassembling them when he was through (something that is no longer possible because of building renovation).

He had made multiple visits to the stacks at night when the Rare Book and Manuscript Library on the top floor of the massive Butler Library was closed. By careful selection of materials that were not likely to be in daily use or that were stored in files and drawers where their loss would not be easily visible, he had covered his traces successfully for several months. Because the items were not tagged with electronic tape, he could leave the building easily without alerting the security guard. The library's (now abandoned) custom of storing duplicates of exhibition labels and catalog entries in the preservation boxes had provided him with the information needed to sell his harvest. At the time of his arrest, approximately one-quarter of the stolen items, including more than two hundred maps from the nine-volume Blaue atlas, were still missing.

A parole officer assigned by Judge Lewis Kaplan to prepare a report to aid in sentencing contacted Columbia for information in May 1997. It was at this point that we decided to use the powers of the law to force some good from what had been a thoroughly unpleasant experience. Susan Galligan, a Columbia attorney worked with me to produce a letter for the court, in which we argued that consideration should be given to the nature of the offense: seven-hundred-year-old manuscripts and early maps were not the same as fur coats or cash; they were cultural materials representing our shared heritage. Moreover, they had been placed in libraries as a public trust so that they would be available to generations of scholars in the context of other scholarly materials. Somewhat to our surprise, the judge agreed. At the sentencing hearing in June, Judge Kaplan announced his intention to depart upward from the newly adopted federal sentencing guidelines, which would have allowed a sentence of no more than thirty-seven months. By this time, Spiegelman had spent approximately twenty-four months in custody

The defense objected. Judge Kaplan gave Spiegelman time to make his case, but also instructed the U.S. Attorney's office to assist Columbia if it should prove to be necessary After a vain attempt to find manuscript dealers who would agree to argue in court that the "cultural value" argument was irrelevant, that is, that market value was the sole determinant of worth, the defense lawyers asked for a public hearing. For that hearing, they wrote a letter to the judge enumerating points that they felt invalidated the Columbia position, that is, they argued that the existence of photocopies made protection of originals unimportant; that the thousands of surviving manuscripts made the disappearance of single ones trivial; that incunabula often existed in multiple identical copies; and that librarians were not, in any case, adequate appraisers of value.

We responded by asking a group of scholars who had worked on similar materials, including such well-known writers as Simon Schama and Robert Darnton, to agree to testify about the importance of original documents of the kind that had been stolen. David Kastan, a Shakespearean scholar, was perhaps the most eloquent: materials such as these, he argued, form the substance of history that has not yet been written.

The experts ultimately were allowed to submit their comments in writing instead of making a court appearance, but at the hearing held on March 20, 1998, I was called to the stand to testify in person. Using actual books and maps, including some of the recovered items, I spent more than three hours demonstrating to the court the difference between originals and copies and explaining the nature of artifactual evidence. When the defense objected to the participation of the Assistant U.S. Attorney in the hearing, Judge Kaplan himself stepped down from the bench and donned white gloves to examine items that had been found in Spiegelman's possession, including the note from George Washington to John Jay and a seventeen-foot-long vellum chronicle of the history of the kings of France.

On April 24, 1998, Judge Kaplan issued a thirty-seven-page opinion sentencing Spiegelman to sixty months in federal custody a restitution fee for the unrecovered items, and a three-year period of probation. Although many of our maps and manuscripts are still missing, Judge Kaplan's eloquently argued statement has had, we understand, an impact on the conduct of similar cases nationwide and, we hope, has thus been of service to libraries and other cultural repositories.

What have we learned and what can we say to others facing similar problems? From our experience, I offer several recommendations that may help both to keep the barn doors closed and to find the pathways most likely to retrieve the livestock should you be unlucky enough to experience a theft.

First, know as much as possible about your collections. Having up-to-date cataloging data is essential. The fact that some of our records for the Arabic material were incomplete or confusing, for example, made it difficult to track that material, some of which has not yet been recovered. In the absence of catalog records, other records are important, such as vertical file folders, publication information, notes from users, and dealer descriptions. Second, keep appraisals of your most valuable materials up to date and readily available, because law enforcement agencies may not be able to pursue cases if the items stolen do not have a predetermined market value. We spent days and days working on valuations, becoming indebted along the way to scores of dealers, auctioneers, and professional appraisers, who, because they were working without seeing the items, were understandably reluctant to give estimates. None of such information about rare items should be kept with the items, nor should it be easily accessible. (We have guessed that in some cases, documents and codices were stolen solely because exhibition labels housed in their boxes identified the materials and explained their importance.)

Next, establish good relations with your institution's legal counsel, security division, risk management office, and administration before a theft occurs. We spent hours explaining what we had, what our procedures were, and how rare books libraries operated to university officials, who, on the one hand, had no idea that such valuable material was present on campus and, on the other hand, did not understand why we had not instantly perceived the loss. Working with the university's office of the general counsel and the public information office would have been much easier had they been primed ahead of time about the use and storage of our collections. The security staff should be familiar with your physical space and aware of any particular areas of vulnerability. It also helps to have a library security officer in place in a time of crisis to deal with law enforcement agencies and attorneys.

Be as open as possible about a theft should one occur, and be prepared to argue for such openness against those who object to reporting an incident for fear that the institution's public name will be tarnished. The practice of keeping things quiet in the hope of avoiding publicity is old-fashioned and counterproductive. Negative consequences are bound to happen when a theft occurs—donor complaints, for example, and alumni headshaking—but they are, on the whole, trivial next to the problems that arise from concealment or evasion. We found the thief and recovered some of the materials only because we published a list of what was lost on the Internet within forty-eight hours of discovery of the loss and followed it up with personal letters to dealers and publication in professional journals. When, however, we agreed to the request of the public information office that a statement to the general interest media, that is, an official press release, not be issued unless newspapers called us (which at first they did not), some faculty members were distressed at not being informed and called a reporter themselves, which led to awkwardness all around. Moreover, we are convinced that the only way to ensure that thefts of cultural material are treated seriously without silly jokes about overdue library books—as appeared after the Blumberg theft—is to take a strong public stand in defense of library resources.

Our story is not over: there are many unanswered questions. Two months after the April 1998 sentencing, a front-page article in the New York Times revealed that one of the lawyers in the case had not really been a lawyer at all and that Spiegelman thus might be entitled to a retrial. Fortunately this did not happen. Then, in October 1999, I was called by an autograph dealer in Connecticut, Basil Panagopolous, who had been offered some of our unrecovered documents. Spiegelman had escaped from his work release program in Manhattan, had retrieved materials from some secret cache, and had crossed state lines to sell them. He was given a twenty-four-month sentence on May 24, 2000, by Judge Loretta Preska, with three years of probation to follow. Although he claims to have sold everything, we suspect that many things remain in his possession.

Although in retrospect it seems predictable, we have been astonished, ruefully amused, and a bit uncomfortable to observe that the criminal and the crime itself seem to have achieved a life of their own. Diane Johnson's recent novel Le Mariage turns on the theft of a medieval manuscript by an American and a subsequent murder. [4] When apprehended, the miscreant is happy to be in the Netherlands because he cannot be extradited to a country where the death penalty might be imposed, a detail clearly derived from newspaper coverage of the Columbia theft. When I discussed the Columbia case with Miles Harvey the author of a recent book on the Gilbert Bland thefts, he suggested that I do an Internet search for Spiegelman's name. [5] We found a seemingly endless and self-perpetuating list of Web sites suggesting that Spiegelman's involvement in the Oklahoma City bombing was being covered up by the United States government, that his theft was intended to fund that tragic event, and that he was quite possibly the elusive John Doe Number Five. We have downloaded the contents of well over eighty sites for reference, but our file on the case is still open. [6]

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