October 24, 2012

The Girolamini Library thefts, or the “best intentions” defense


Massimo de Caro. Photoshop fail! Also, morality fail!

It wasn’t quite bad enough that the director and the former curator of one of the richest and oldest libraries in Italy, the Girolamini Library in Naples, turned out to have been stealing books from their own library and selling them off — over 1,500 books are missing, at the most recent count.

It now turns out that the guilty parties, Massimo de Caro and Father Sandro Marsano, aided by French antiquarian book expert Stephane Delsalle and two others, also ransacked other libraries in Verona, Padua, and at the Abbey of Montecassino, just south of Rome. Books were funneled through the Munich auction house Zisska and Schauer, and they’ve turned up in London, New York, and Tokyo, though most of the books stolen are still missing.

The sequence of events that led to the unveiling of de Caro and Marsano’s dirty little scheme is as follows, reconstructed by Daryl Green on the University of St. Andrews’ Special Collections blog:

I hadn’t heard of the Girolamini library until April, when my attention was caught by a petition started by Italian academics which asked why the current librarian, Massimo Marino De Caro (a man with no professional qualifications and a dubious background), and his staff had been appointed to take care of this beautiful and important library. This came on the heels of De Caro’s announcement earlier in April that over 1,500 books were missing from the library, after which the shady background of De Caro began to unfold. This petition was signed by over 2,000 Italian and international academics and librarians (including this blogger). Three days later, the library was closed by the Naples Public Prosecutor and De Caro had been suspended and placed under inspection for embezzlement.  Following these events, evidence came to light that De Caro had been recorded on surveillance tapes removing boxes of books from the library, and that at least three volumes with the Girolamini stamp had been found in his Verona home.  On Friday, 18 May 2012, 1,000 books were found in a storage facility in Verona connected to De Caro, 250 of which had the Girolamini stamp on them, along with records of other which had been sold to foreign buyers.

A report in the New York Times earlier this year makes it clear that this was no opportunistic, “no one will miss these” grab:

After Mr. De Caro took over last summer he began to move books from their shelves and between rooms, to preserve the books and rid the shelves of wood worms, he told investigators. Instead, prosecutors believe, the books were rearranged and index cards were destroyed to make it difficult to track missing volumes.

De Caro has also been linked to forged copies of books by Galileo, especially a copy of Sidereus Nuncius, Galileo’s observations of the cosmos, first published in Venice in 1610 and one of the most important books in the history of science — a forgery, which, it seems, De Caro supported with a two-volume study affirming its authenticity.

Corriere della Sera has more background on the guy, and frankly, at this point, I wouldn’t let him near my office stash of sugar packets: he appears to be mixed up in Venezualan oil, he’s the honorary consul for Congo, he’s the former VP of a wind farm and solar energy firm owned by Russian oligarch Viktor Veselbach, and, to cap it off, he’s also former partner in the Buenos Aires antiquarian bookshop, Imago Mundi, owned by Daniel Guido Pastore, himself involved in Spain in inquiries into the theft of books from the national library in Madrid and the Zaragoza library. De Caro claims he’s related to the Lampedusa princes — not true, the real Lampedusa heirs riposte — and even his academic qualifications don’t check out.

But perhaps best of all?

Prosecutors say that Mr. De Caro has admitted to taking some books with the intent to sell them, but solely to pay for the restoration of the underfinanced library and its precious volumes.



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