Rare Book Theft Makes Headlines

I was amazed to read about the recently discovered theft of rare library books, maps and plates reported in the Antique Week newspaper’s Aug. 6 edition.

It happened in Pittsburgh over the course of 20 years and ended up with two trusted professional men being charged in what authorities say might be the biggest theft of library books ever.

I also read the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s coverage by Paula Reed Ward (July 20 edition) of this sad but fascinating story that involved the Carnegie Library’s rare book collections in the Oliver Room.

It seems that more than $8 million in rare books and pages of books were lifted from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. The Post-Gazette stated the total theft included careful planning and the two accused thieves “cannibalized rare books from the institution by cutting out pages.”

That’s the most shocking part of the story to me, that the thieves sliced up rare books. The worst thing is that the two alleged parties were professionals, one the library’s archivist Gregory Priore, the other a well-known local bookstore owner, John Schulman.

I’ve been in both the library and the book store — Caliban Book Shop — and in fact, visited the store some years back to try to sell a first edition book that I inherited from my mom. The library and store are located just a block away from each other in the busy Oakland neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

I had called the Carnegie Library and asked for advice on where to take a rare book to have examined or purchased, and they suggested Caliban. The store wasn’t interested in my book, however.

First editions are generally worth investigating if you have any, but mine was on an obscure topic (Italian history) and not by a notable author, so I had to return home with my treasure and forget making a fortune that day.

But back to the theft. The Caliban Book Shop is known for its valuable antique books, and Schulman has been on PBS’s “Antiques Roadshow” as an expert appraiser several times. He was a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, according to the article in Antique Week by Jim Rutledge. It is ironic that he served on the Ethics and Standards Committee.

Priore alleged that he was “goaded” into his actions by Schulman, who made more money than he did in his book-selling profession. Maps, pictures and books were all part of the treasure stolen. Some of it was discovered and recovered in the suspects’ offices and in the Caliban Book Shop warehouse, according to news reports.

The most valuable book stolen, Isaac Newton’s “Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica,” (Latin for Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), was recovered. It is valued at $900,000 and dates to 1687.

But many more are still missing. The discovery of the thefts occurred last April, after the library conducted an appraisal. In fact, Priore stopped selling in late 2016, after finding out the appraisal by Pall Mall Art Advisors would take place.

How did the alleged thieves sell their wares? According to Antique Week, much of the selling took place on the Internet, for example on the website, viaLibri.net, which is considered the world’s largest marketplace for old and rare books. Other sales allegedly took place between major book dealers and Schulman.

The news coverage continues so if you’re intrigued, just follow the coverage online.

Who said antiques are boring?

By the way, I called the Caliban, and it’s still open for business and its website is active at calibanbooks.com. It seems a judge ruled that the owners cannot make a profit but can continue to operate and pay their employees, utilities and rent.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at zambitomaureen@hotmail.com or by writing in care of this newspaper.