June 24, 2020
Ex-Librarian and bookseller sentenced in decades-long theft scheme
by Alyea Canada
Librarians, they’re just like us! Well, if you are someone who would steal $8 million of rare books and artifacts from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, that is. Michael Levenson over at the New York Times reported on Saturday that Gregory Priore, former manager of the rare books room, and John Schulman, a local bookstore owner, were each sentenced to house arrest and twelve years probation for their scheme that lasted over twenty years. Schulman must also pay over $55,000 in restitution.
While I wish this was some sort of elaborate heist, like most crimes it is mostly a matter of misplaced trust. Priore was the sole manager of the William R. Oliver Special Collections Room and oversaw 30,000 individual items including maps, rare books, and plates. Starting in the 1990s, he just started taking items and, on his way home from work, dropping them off at Caliban Book Shop for Schulman to sell. Schulman would then tell patrons that the items were legally obtained from the library, even stamping some books “withdrawn” from the collection. According to Levinson’s article, Priore only stopped selling in 2016 when he learned the collection was going to be appraised the next year. Not shockingly, “appraisers discovered missing items and books that had been ‘cannibalized,’ with entire portions removed.” The two were arrested in July 2018.
According to an Associated Press report posted on PennLive, the two men plead guilty and were spared incarceration because of concerns about COVID-19 (and, let’s be honest, probably because of white privilege). Both men are first-time offenders and over fifty, Priore is 64 and Schulman is 56, and there has been a push against locking up nonviolent offenders as the coronavirus ravages jails and prisons. But had the two been sentenced in the before times, Judge Alexander P. Bicket insists “significantly more impactful.”
This scandal has sent waves through the rare book community which is quite niche, pretty insular, and largely reliant on trust. Among the items stolen were a Geneva Bible from 1615, a first-edition book signed by Thomas Jefferson from 1787, and a copy of Isaac Newton’s “Principa” said to be worth $900,000. Board chair of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburg, Patrick Dowd, said that the thefts “will forever raise doubts about the security of all future charitable donations, particularly to the Carnegie Library.” Priore and Schulman cite greed as the motivators for their crimes. I, for one, will never be able to shake the question of whether or not a librarian is a criminal mastermind.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.