A Brief History of 7 Book Heists
You shouldn't take a page from these criminals' books. While library theft and the black market rare book trade can offer up million-dollar scores, there are plenty of reasons why these thefts don't work out. The first reason is that after the heist, the re-sale poses a second, greater risk of capture. The second reason is that, sometimes, the book thieves are stoned when they enter the library in old man costumes. For more book heist shenanigans, read on:
1. The Transylvania University Book Heist
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Get ready for the first time you'll hear the phrase "one part Ocean's Eleven, one part Harold & Kumar" used to describe a large-scale heist... or really anything at all. Stoned out of their minds— not just then but also, perpetually—a group of four college students blundered through one of the FBI's most significant cases of art theft (the story behind recent film American Animals, starring Evan Peters). When student Warren Lipka's beloved soccer coach father (Big Warren) amassed a big gambling debt, Small Warren (not his actual nickname) withdrew to the fringes of university life. After learning the basics of identity theft from a shady-but-still-preppy alumni, Lipka's freshman orientation tour of Transylvania University's library gave him a twelve-million-dollar idea: to steal the university's first-edition copy of John James Audubon's Birds of America.
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Lipka recalls telling a co-conspirator: "there was zero security other than an old librarian named BJ and having to sign a fucking book." So the gang did what anyone would do— they made a fake 'professor's' email, wore old-man makeup so bad two of the would-be criminals were turned away from the library, and tasered the hell out of BJ. After the theft, they booked it to Christie's auction house to get the book appraised. Co-conspirator Spencer Reinhard reflects on the decision:
The way I rationalized it was: it’s the biggest auction house. If we go in there they’re not going to suspect that we stole these. Because no one would go to Christie’s with stolen books to get them appraised—that’s how we did a lot of stuff, like, we would smoke weed directly under the [security] camera on the Transy campus, park a car right underneath it and then smoke for like an hour. We figured the more obvious [we were], the less likely [we would be suspected].
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Reinhard's recollection becomes even more ironic when you consider they were caught when—while under FBI surveillance—the gang saw heist film Ocean's Twelve and verbally compared it with their own heist as they sat in the public movie theater. The kicker? They never even managed to sell the books.
2. The 'Mission Impossible' Rare Book Thieves
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In January of 2017, three thieves rappelled from the skylight of a London warehouse to steal over 160 books, among them original works of Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, and Galileo Galilei. Though they covered a distance of over forty feet from the roof to their 2.5 million dollar score, they managed never to trigger the warehouse's motion detectors. Though the Transy heist is more infamous, there's one major difference between the two robberies: these criminals were never caught. (And even if they were, they probably aren't hiding the stolen goods in a bag beneath their marijuana grow.) Based on the lack of evidence, authorities suspect the books were not stolen for resale but for a private collection—which is evidence that the ridiculously wealthy must get pretty bored.
3. The Ironic (and Iconic) Harvard Bible Thief
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The 'Mission Impossible' book thieves weren't the only ones to try some spy-movie action moves in order to commit a totally badass white collar theft—they were just the ones who could pull it off. In 1969, burglar Vido Aras (his lack of a code name should foreshadow just how well this goes for him) attempted to rappel into the Harvard University library to steal its rare Gutenberg Bible. The alarm system was easy. The climb? Not so much. After slipping from his rope, Aras fell forty feet, where police soon found him unconscious on the floor, Bible still in hand. Looks like thou shalt not steal... from Harvard University.
4. The 8-Million-Dollar Carnegie Library Theft
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Though no one discovered the theft until this past year, it's been going on for nearly twenty. Greg Priore, sole archivist of the rare books collection, made an excellent case for not leaving only one person in charge of incredibly valuable things by stealing 8 million dollars of material. An inside job, the thefts were primarily 'cannibalism,' a term which in this case refers to removing pages or sections from valuable works. (It doesn't refer to the consumption of human flesh, which would make this a very different sort of crime.) This technique of stealing pages instead of volumes makes the materials easier to sell and more challenging to track. Rather than using elaborate methods to extract the documents, Priore admitted to flat-out rolling them up. His explanation? "Greed came on." When caught, he told authorities: "you got me, I screwed up." Slick.
5. The Case of Hemingway's Lost Novel
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In 1922, Hadley Hemingway (wife of Ernest Hemingway— the first of many, though she presumably didn't know that at the time) brought the longhand originals of her husband's ongoing novelization of his WWI experiences with her on a train to Paris. Though nobody is certain exactly what happened, one thing is tragically apparent: her suitcase was stolen, and the novel was lost to time. Hemingway famously stated that he "would have opted for surgery if he knew it could erase the memory of his loss," though it was, of course, 1920, when surgery could hardly do anything at all. When drunk (so, often) Hemingway frequently claimed this theft was the reason behind his divorce from Hadley. It still doesn't explain his divorce from all the others.
6. The Original Master Book Thief
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In 1981, the police questioned a sloppily-dressed man in Muhlenberg College's Haas Library on his second suspicious visit. Understandably nervous, the unknown man asked if he could smoke in the conference room. When the officers left to get him an ashtray (as if only to demonstrate that this case is from the 1980s), the man bolted. It might have been a cool move—had his driver's license and motel receipt not fallen from his pocket with the cigarettes. Upon searching the room, Pennsylvania law enforcement discovered twenty-six valuable stolen books, along with plans to steal over a hundred more. Proving he was an expert, the unknown man also had dyes, counterfeit title pages, and a cache of fake IDs. Proving he was shady, he also had a gun and a copy of How to Disappear and Live Freely.
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Investigations revealed that culprit James R. Shinn didn't just steal books—he tricked people into giving them away. Shinn was also a con man who frequently posed as a reputable book dealer, receiving rare book shipments and then falsifying the payment. And he didn't just rob Muhlenberg College—he'd robbed dozens of other college libraries. Authorities marvelled: "he's always sloppy... he never carries identification— that way, even if he's stopped, they figure he's just a sloppy bum." The law might have taken his books and twenty years of his life, but they couldn't take his legacy: Shinn is the reason the criminal charge 'Library Theft' exists.
7. The Book Heist Road Trip
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Robert Kindred was a thirty-four-year-old high school dropout with no plans of attending college. He was wrong about one thing—he would go to a prestigious university, not just one but several, just not go as a student. Tearing across Texas in his Cadillac, he carried with him a trunk full of stolen books and a roadmap of universities that offered open library stacks, whose commitment to intellectual enthusiasm was exactly what made them so easy to rob.
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After moving on from Texas to sack universities in New Orleans and Washington D.C., Kindred and accomplice Green encountered an obstacle—the closed library at the University of Illinois, which tantalizingly contained many books on Kindred's wish list. His plan was simple: break in, loot books, and lower the goods to the parking lot by rope. Startlingly, the plan itself didn't go wrong—instead, a security guard pulled, unbothered, into the parking lot for the first time in five nights. The heist went wrong, but not even that wrong: as we've already established that library theft was not yet a criminal charge, Kindred only got probation. Accomplice Green received no punishment at all.
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