April 5, 2013

“Scientist, Scholar & Scoundrel”: Count Gugliemo Libri, book thief


A Sotheby’s ad for an auction of Libri’s library.

A new show has just opened at the Grolier Club in Midtown that focuses on the life and misdeeds of one of the nineteenth century’s most brazen book thieves, Count Guglielmo Libri. Libri (whose last name, irony of ironies, means “books”) stole, altered, forged, sold off, and generally wreaked havoc with priceless books, manuscripts, and letters all across Italy and France during the 1840s.

Born in Florence in 1803, Libri began his career in Italy as a professor of mathematics. But, forced to leave the country due to his involvement with the Carbonari, a secret revolutionary group which had cells all across Italy during the politically tempestuous 1820s and ’30s, he landed in France in 1833, where he eventually secured the post of Chief Inspector of French Libraries…which was pretty much like asking the fox to guard the henhouse. When Libri became Chief Inspector, a project was already underway to catalog the manuscripts and books held in French provincial libraries; Libri, heading it up, used the opportunity to simply snaffle the goodies himself.

What’s worse (or perhaps better, because it’s hard not to like this guy) is that, like certain modern-day highly placed book thieves, he did it with maximum audacity. From an article by Jeremy Dibbell in Fine Books & Collections:

While publicly lamenting the state of French libraries, urging the librarians to take better care of their materials and make them available to the public, Libri was simultaneously taking advantage of the lax security and poor cataloging to make off with rare manuscripts and books (sometimes substituting inferior copies of the books, or “exchanging” treasures for modern items of much lesser value). When he was once confronted with a theft, Libri denied it, but offered to “give” his copy of the book in question to the library as a replacement for its missing one.

A letter by Descartes that Libri stole in this period—one of 72—was recently returned to the Institut de France after it was discovered at Haverford College, who’d received in 1902 as part of a donation from the widow of autograph collector Charles Roberts.

To further muddy the historical record, Libri altered copies, inserting and removing leaves, and he also hired binders and forgers to erase library markings, take out bookplates, ink in new ownership signatures, and create false purchase histories that covered his tracks.

He was further enabled by his many supporters, including Anthony Panizzi, Director of the British Museum’s library (the precursor to the British Library), and Prosper Mérimée, author of Carmen—even as the extent of his crimes began to come out. Eventually, he fled to England and lived off periodic sales of the stolen material. Many of the books and manuscripts, which number in the tens of thousands, remain untraced.

The Grolier show, compiled by Jeremy Norman, a rare book dealer who has long been tracing Libri’s career, will be a superb chance to revel in bibliographic dastardliness—bring your cape (for hiding manuscripts under) and an air of bemused, unworldly innocence.

More information about the show is available at the Grolier Club’s website.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.