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[BKARTS] Curator suspected of looting library -- from today's Guardian

Curator suspected of looting library

30,000 works missing in France
Jon Henley in Paris
Tuesday June 28, 2005

The chief curator of France's national library was questioned by police
yesterday as it emerged that the establishment is missing at least
30,000 books and manuscripts, including nearly 2,000 considered to be of
"exceptional historical value".

Michel Garel, in charge of the Bibliothèque Nationale's (BNF's)
collection of ancient Hebrew manuscripts, is suspected of playing a part
in the disappearance of 25 priceless manuscripts, five of them dating
from the Middle Ages, and 121 printed pages torn from precious tomes of
the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

The curator, who has denied the allegations, is the subject of one of
half a dozen police inquiries into suspected thefts at the institution,
which was founded in the 16th century and, as France's principal
copyright and legal deposit library, holds some 35m books, documents,
manuscripts, maps, plans and photos.

"We can't turn the BNF into a fortress," said Agnes Saal, the chief
administrator. "It would make life comfortable, but it would be
incompatible with our mission. Unlike museums, our documents are there
to be consulted."

Some 400,000 readers and researchers pored over more than 1.2m documents
at the BNF last year.

The total number of works missing from the library is almost certainly
far greater than anyone has estimated, according to Ms Saal, because
"many collections have not been checked for a great many years".

A damning report on security at the BNF, commissioned last year by the
library's president, Jean-Noel Jeannenay, and leaked to Le Figaro
newspaper, said 30,000 works could not be accounted for after a check of
10m titles - less than a third of the BNF's total - carried out during
the library's recent gradual move from various sites in central Paris
and Versailles to its monumental new premises in the 13th
arrondissement, the report said.

According to Le Figaro, exhaustive further stocktaking last year of the
library's most valuable "core collection" revealed that 1,183 titles
were missing. These were mostly works of literature from the 19th and
early 20th centuries, but included some 200 dating back to the 17th
century and earlier.

Mr Garel has been placed under formal investigation, one step short of
being charged, in connection with the theft of a document known as
Manuscript 52, a copy of the first five books of the Bible that was
produced in France in about 1250 and bound in Italy in the 15th century.

The work was offered in a sale of rare manuscripts at Christie's auction
house in New York in 2004, and a wealthy but unidentified Anglo-Israeli
collector and dealer living in London has reportedly told French police
that Mr Garel sold it to him in 2000 for €80,000 (£53,000), as part of
series of purchases totalling some €500,000.

Mr Garel had admitted stealing and selling the manuscript, but yesterday
retracted his confession, saying he had owned up to a crime he did not
commit because it was "the only way to avoid being thrown into prison".

He said he was "the perfect scapegoat" for the library's hierarchy, with
whom he had been "on difficult terms" for 10 years, and insisted he had
never stolen anything.

Indeed, he added, he had repeatedly warned the BNF's security service of
how easy it was to gain unauthorised access to the sites, and of the
existence of criminal networks specialising in stolen manuscripts.

Since its move to the new site, named after the late President François
Mitterrand, the BNF has introduced draconian security measures: readers
must be accredited and prove their identity; the reading rooms are under
video surveillance; and library staff must consent to having their bags,
pockets and desks inspected regularly. Staff are also moved frequently
so they do not spend too long working on the same collection.

But such thefts are almost impossible to stamp out entirely, Ms Saal said.

As long ago as the mid-19th century, a visiting Italian nobleman, the
appropriately named Count Libri, claimed he was on an official mission
to inspect the libraries of France - and robbed the BNF of a copy of
Dante's Divine Comedy and a number of Da Vinci sketches.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

Matthew Garelick

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