Sunday, November 08, 2009

Book Thieves, Rare Books, the Desire of the Book

The Boston Globe Idea section today has an interview with author Allison Hoover Bartlett about her recent book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession (Riverhead), about John Charles Gilkey. Gilkey stole rare books from dealers and bookstores around the country. While serving several prison terms, he took classes to improve his understanding of literature and help him recognize rare books and manuscripts.

He might never have been caught but for the diligence of Ken Sanders. A ponytailed Utah bookseller whose shop was a countercultural hangout, Sanders found a new calling as an amateur detective when he volunteered to serve as security chair for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. As Sanders uncovered the patterns of thievery that eventually led him to Gilkey, he became as absorbed in the the hunt for his nemesis as he would have been in pursuit of a rare 17th century withcraft tome, or a signed copy of “Finnegan’s Wake.” (snip)

Bartlett will appear in Boston at the Antiquarian Book Fair at Hynes Convention Center on Nov. 15. She spoke with us by phone from her home in San Francisco.

IDEAS: You’ve said you love reading but don’t share the collecting impulse yourself. Why do people dedicate their lives to hunting down rare books?

BARTLETT: The collector has this very deep appreciation for the book as a physical object that’s mixed with that other love that the rest of us have. And it seems to be almost something you’re born with. With lots of the collectors I met, it seemed like it’s an unidentified genetic trait. Because a lot of them grew up around collectors, their parents were collectors or their uncle was, and it just seems to be almost innate, like a musical ear.

IDEAS: For many collectors, you write, the goal is “to stumble upon a book whose scarcity or beauty or history or provenance is even more seductive than the story printed between its covers.” (snip)

IDEAS: Like legitimate collectors, Gilkey’s motivated by a passion for books. What drove him to steal?

BARTLETT: I think that in many ways Gilkey is a loner, an outsider... He wanted the world to see him as a cultured erudite gentleman who revered literature. But there’s a lot of anger alongside that also; I think he’s frustrated that he’s not yet seen that way. And he has gone to prison repeatedly, I think five or six times at least for this. And what happens when he gets caught and goes to prison is, he wants revenge…. like OK, now I’m getting even, now I’m getting the book collection I deserve.

IDEAS: You write that “for Gilkey . . . having not paid for books... adds even more to their allure.”
That little, telling piece out of the larger interview really grabbed my attention. The combination of the passion for collection, the passion for rare books, manuscripts, incunabulae, etc, and the self-justification that leads to theft.... Oh, my! And there are more people out there like this than I had guessed. Ken Sanders has nabbed more people than just Gilkey. If you travel to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers' news site here, you find a rather long and unwieldy page. But if you use control F, and search for "Ken Sanders," you will find a number of fascinating investigations he has carried out. I believe the "news," is fairly current -- September - October, 2009, as far as I can tell. The links out from the story about Sanders, though, are broken, sadly. However, Sanders is a fascinating character, not only a rare books dealer, but a rare books detective. Law enforcement agencies rarely are able to spend much time or manpower on rare book thefts, however valuable. And someone who recognizes the item and understands the world is a uniquely valuable investigator. Somebody who pursues the investigation with bulldog tenacity is even more valuable!
The rare book world, after all, is where Sanders has spent his life since he began collecting as a teenager.

There is another world, too, in which Sanders has grown adept at manoeuvring, a world filled with shadowy figures and deceit. In this world, Sanders is not merely a rare books dealer, but a rare books detective. As chair of the security committee for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA), Sanders spends between ten and fifteen hours a week poring over reports of theft and fraud, sending alerts to ABAA members and, as the situation warrants, conducting his own investigations. His tenure as security chair for the ABAA-a volunteer position-began in 1999 and has coincided with the rapid growth of Internet commerce and of its spawn, electronic fraud, to which the bookselling community has been especially susceptible.

Book dealers who have been defrauded know to turn to Sanders, as law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Interpol almost never take an interest in the jurisdictional complexity of tracking down rare-book thieves. Using a stolen credit card number and just enough literary knowledge, a typical thief can convince an unsuspecting dealer to ship a valuable first edition across several time zones. Rare books are small, easily portable, not overtly suspicious and, thanks to Internet auction sites like eBay, easily converted into cash. No one keeps track of total losses, but the most notorious thieves working the trade have made off with as much as $100,000 US each in books-taking care never to "spend" more than about $5,000 at a time so as to avoid rousing suspicion.

Reports of theft and fraud have shaken up the rare book trade, to the chagrin of many. "It's been a trusting, gentle business for most of its existence," says Sanders, "a handshake kind of business." Rooted deep within the culture of bookselling is a certain reticence, an essential genteelness that Sanders, with his hard-charging efforts, seems to have endangered. Booksellers seem dismissive of any talk about theft and scams and consider it a serious impediment to business. Steven Temple, security chair for the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, doesn't think that theft is necessarily increasing at all, only that it is now more commonly reported.

Sanders' investigations, however, have undeniably led to results. He has shut down gangs in Belgrade operating with stolen credit card numbers and eBay accounts-though not before they managed to scam dealers of about $40,000 in rare books. Sanders has also disrupted gangs of credit-card fraudsters based in Nigeria and Ghana, baiting them by accepting orders and then shutting down their stolen card numbers. Sanders takes pleasure in asking for another card, and then another, until the fraudsters realize he's on to their schemes.

Last year Sanders helped nab book thief John Charles Gilkey, who may have stolen as much as $100,000 in books. For months Gilkey-who was "brazen as hell," says Sanders-placed orders with booksellers over the phone, often chatting up dealers before using a stolen credit card to make the purchase. Before the charge could be disputed, Gilkey would call back to mention that a cousin or nephew was conveniently in town and able to drop by the bookshop. Then he or his accomplice-identified afterwards as his father-would leave with the book in hand. Gilkey later switched methods and asked booksellers to send books by overnight mail to hotels, where he had reserved a room with a different stolen credit card.

When Gilkey attempted to scam Ken Lopez, president of the ABAA, Lopez and Sanders worked with police in San Jose to set up a sting. Lopez, a Massachusetts-based dealer, let Gilkey go through with an order for a first edition of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Though the asking price was $6,500, Gilkey actually talked Lopez down to a price of $5,850. He also asked Lopez to send the book overnight to the upscale Westin Hotel in Palo Alto. When Gilkey, dressed in rumpled slacks and a baseball cap, arrived to pick up the package, police were on the scene to apprehend him. After posting a $15,000 bail, Gilkey disappeared, eluding authorities for weeks until he was eventually caught in another sting. He is now serving a three-year sentence in California.

Why does Sanders pursue these white-collar criminals so relentlessly? "I have an innate sense of fairness," he says. His daughter Melissa agrees: "He takes [theft] so personally, not only when it happens to our store, but to our colleagues."
(from the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers' news website). There is a lot more there, including information on a far more dangerous-sounding thief, "...David George Holt, aka Frederik Buwe, aka Professor Karl Fisher. Holt, a sixty-two-year-old Illinois native turned globetrotter, actually has many more aliases, all allegedly used in email and Internet scams that have plagued book dealers since the mid-1990s." Holt has apparently threatened Sanders, leaving messages on the voice mail. He is a strong suspect in the murder of New York bookseller Svetlana Aronov. Holt certainly stole about $100,000 in U.S. Savings bonds from his grandmother, and abandoned his wife and five children in the suburbs of Milwaukee to flee to New Zealand in 1991. He has stolen thousands of dollars worth of rare books, apparently from booksellers, rather than libraries. He is wanted on charges of securities fraud as well. The nastiness of this particular book thief is rather out of the ordinary. Most book thieves tend to be more like the book collectors they prey upon; scholarly, bookish, literate, though, on both the cases of Holt and of Gilkey, they certainly have a streak of sociopathic egotism that makes it seem just fine to them to crush others under foot as long as they get their way. I enjoyed the survey review written by Julia Keller of the Chicago Tribune, partly because it recalled past books about the mania of book collecting (Nicholas A. Basbanes' A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (1995), which also includes the story of Stephen Blumberg
, a truly large scale book thief. Blumberg, unlike the thieves mentioned earlier, preyed largely on university libraries and museums. The report I read totaled the final count at "-more than 20,000 rare books and 10,000 manuscripts from 140 or more universities in 45 states and Canada. (One report said they were taken from 327 libraries and museums." (Conservation Online's Abbey Newsletter, vol. 15, no. 7, Nov., 1991, quoting the OCLC Newsletter, July/Aug. 199 1, p. 10).

And here is the Desire of the Book part... What draws these thieves, or for that matter, the rare book collectors, sellers, and curators? What is it that makes these thieves decide to steal a book, when books cannot be fenced, as Julia Keller, the Chicago Trib reviewer so succinctly puts it? This is not a matter of making money, merely. The author of the Man Who Loved Books Too Much...
Bartlett spends a great deal of time interviewing Gilkey, both in and out of prison, recording his equivocation and his loneliness and his pathetic self-denial. "The Man Who Loved Books Too Much" ends up underlining an important sociological truth: For all of our excitement about new media and innovative forms of storytelling, when it comes to signifying high culture, books still rule. Books are symbols of erudition and sophistication. If you want people to think you're intelligent, you install bookshelves in your home and you fill them up. Gilkey, Bartlett notes, was obsessed with "the image of an English gentleman with a grand library." He wants books because, he tells her, " 'There's that sense of admiration you're gonna get from other people.' "
This, I guess, is why you still see all the photographs of law professors and lawyers taken in front of shelves of law books. They may not use the sets of reporters any more. They may not even own the set at the firm... but they want the photo taken in front of the National Reporter set, because of what it signifies: scholarliness, wisdom, lawyerliness.

The image is courtesy of the City College of San Francisco English Major website at

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