[Table of Contents] [Search]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

Rare books stolen from university in Poland

Rare books stolen from university in Poland
Missing manuscripts humiliate famed school

Saturday, November 13, 1999

KRAKOW, Poland -- For serious scholars, the Jagiellonian University
library evokes the heady smell of precious pages from the past --
works by such Renaissance giants as Copernicus and Galileo.
Serious thieves smelled something else in the prestigious Polish
library's aging stacks: cold cash.
In an unsolved caper that has humiliated guardians of the renowned
medieval collection, at least 58 manuscripts disappeared six months
A few surfaced last month as they were about to go on sale at a
German auction house. But that has done little to ease the
embarrassment and pain at the Jagiellonian University, a 600-year-old
center of learning named for King Wladyslaw Jagiello, who greatly
expanded it.
The library houses more than 3.5 million works, including some of the
nation's most precious manuscripts. Copernicus studied at the
Jagiellonian, as did a young Karol Wojtyla, now Pope John Paul II.
Today their bags would be subject to searches and they would have to
go through rigorous bureaucratic channels for permission to examine
even one old title.
"This is the price that thousands of library users are paying,"
university spokesman Leszek Sliwa said last week. "Library patrons
would skin the thief alive because now it is much more difficult to
get to the books."
Library officials are not sure how much the books might bring on the
antiques market, where valuation is highly subjective. One missing
manuscript alone -- a 1543 copy of Copernicus' planetary motion theory
-- is believed to be worth a half-million dollars.
It isn't clear how the books were smuggled out, but there are some
The head of special collections, Zdzislaw Pietrzyk, said a librarian
noticed some oddities last April in the library's inner sanctum: a
book sticking awkwardly out of a row, another stored upside down. A
frantic inventory of the medieval collection's 300,000 volumes ensued.
Most of the missing titles had been removed from protective covers
and replaced with less valuable books. Library staff members make
only $190 to $285 a month, leading to speculation that it would have
been easy to bribe an insider.
Pietrzyk bristles at suggestions it could be someone from his select
staff of 35, saying he could "not imagine" anyone among them "would
try to violate the sanctity" of the library.
Prosecutors are hoping for some answers from a Bulgarian student who
was arrested last month after about 60 books from the Jagiellonian
were found in his Krakow apartment. So far, no evidence has emerged
linking him to the missing medieval manuscripts.
Inevitably, Poland's 10-year struggle with post-communist economic
reforms gets some blame for the lax security. Pleas for more money
from the cash-strapped government have gone unanswered for years, said
Krzysztof Krolas, head of finance at the university.
But the scandal has prompted some changes. A U.S. security system --
including remote cameras and alarms -- costing $171,000 is being
installed a year earlier than planned.
Polish investigators say they have identified 18 Jagiellonian titles
that were to go on sale at the Reiss and Sohn auction house in
Koenigstein, Germany, including a 15th-century copy of a work by
astronomer Ptolemy.
Krakow prosecutors want the books back, but prospects are uncertain.
Frankfurt prosecutors have only approved the confiscation of 11 of the
18 titles claimed by Polish investigators, and say it will be up to
the German courts to determine ownership.
"What has happened is that now auction houses in Germany that have a
Kepler, a Copernicus or a Galileo immediately come under suspicion,"
said Friedrich Ziska of the Ziska F. and Kistner R. auction house in
"These people just cannot understand that there is more than one
copy" of such works, he said.


The Museum Security Network is made possible
by generous sponsorship grants by Mosler Inc
and the Netherlands Museums Association


            BOOK_ARTS-L: The listserv for all the book arts.
      For subscription information, the Archive, and other related
            resources and links go to the Book_Arts-L FAQ at:

[Subject index] [Index for current month] [Table of Contents] [Search]