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Copernicus Tempts Thieves Worldwide

In the news...

05:21 PM ET 02/14/00

Copernicus Tempts Thieves Worldwide

Associated Press Writer=
           MOSCOW (AP) _ Copies of one of the world's rarest and most
valuable books have been disappearing _ a rash of mysterious thefts
that have perplexed police from the former Soviet Union to the
United States.
           The first-edition copies of 16th century astronomer Nicolaus
Copernicus' renowned treatise in Latin, ``De revolutionibus orbium
coelestium'' (On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres) have vanished
from collections across the globe.
           In Poland, a reader said he had to use the bathroom _ and made
off with the treasured volume. A thief in Kiev, Ukraine, pilfered
the book using a fake police ID. The latest theft of the book,
published in 1543 and valued at up to $400,000, was discovered
earlier this month in Russia.
           Russian police say they have appealed to Interpol for help in
locating that book, which disappeared from the Academy of Sciences
Library in St. Petersburg. Police would give no further details.
           At least seven of the 260 known copies of the 1543 edition of
``De revolutionibus'' have disappeared in recent years, including
one copy each from the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana
and the Mittag-Leffler Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, according to
Owen Gingerich, a professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for
Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. Five copies remain missing.
           Some police have speculated that a ring of thieves and
collectors is behind the rash of thefts or that the books may have
been stolen on some collectors' orders.
           However, Gingerich says there is no evidence to suggest an
international conspiracy to steal copies of the treatise, which
describes Copernicus' then-revolutionary theory that the Sun, not
the Earth, was at the center of the universe.
           Gingerich has worked for a quarter-century compiling a list of
all known copies of the first- and second-editions of the work, a
quest that has taken him to cities and libraries worldwide _ and
has helped him trace at least two stolen copies.
           While the book is a tempting target for thieves because of its
value, it's also ``a very dangerous title to steal,'' Gingerich
said in an Internet interview, noting that his census can help
identify any known copy, making it risky to try to sell a stolen
copy at auction or on the international antique market.
           Still, the disappearances continue.
           The theft in Poland occurred in November 1998 at the Polish
Academy of Sciences' library in Krakow, where a man in his 40s
asked to read a first-edition copy of ``De Revolutionibus'' valued
at $320,000.
           Sometime later, the reader said he had to visit the toilet _ and
disappeared. He left behind his belongings and the book's covers,
said Krakow's deputy police head Eugeniusz Szczerbak.
           Three months earlier, a man walked out of the Ukrainian National
Library in Kiev carrying a first-edition Copernicus. The thief had
an apparently fake police ID and appeared to be well-acquainted
with the library's security arrangements.
           Librarians said he requested six books, including the
Copernicus. He then returned the books to secure a receipt, took a
break and came back to request more books, including the
Copernicus. The man vanished with the rare book just before closing
time, apparently showing the guard the initial receipt to prove he
had returned it.
           Gingerich has helped trace at least two stolen copies. One copy
that surfaced on the book market in 1997 came from the Brno
University Library in the Czech Republic. It had been returned by
the library, which kept the book during Communist times, to the
original owner, an Augustinian monastery, from where it
           Another edition that turned up in Germany had come from the
Pulkovo Observatory Library in St. Petersburg, Russia, Gingerich
           The library ``suffered a disastrous arson fire ... and
apparently someone thought that the inventory of the library was
now so incomplete that a missing book would be presumed lost in the
fire,'' he said.

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