Institute heist: Experts say antique books stolen for other reasons can stay lost for years, even decades
It seems like the perfect heist.
One safe. Two rare and expensive books. Little security.
Making use of that formula, a thief entered the LDS Salt Lake City University Institute of Religion between Oct. 24 and Nov. 8 and removed a safe from a secretary’s office that is normally locked outside business hours.
When the heist was over, an 1840 edition of the Book of Mormon printed in Nauvoo, Ill., and an 1841 edition printed in Liverpool, England, were gone.
By the end of last week, University of Utah police were following up on a lead, and evidence collected at the scene was still being processed. So far, however, the stolen books, worth a combined $60,000, have yet to surface – at least not publicly.
And it could take years, perhaps even decades before they show up again in the public marketplace, those familiar with rare-book theft say.
It depends, they say, on who gets their hands on the books. Books stolen to bolster a private collection are less likely to surface as quickly as items taken for money.
Salt Lake City bookseller Ken Sanders, past chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America’s Security Committee, says book theft and fraud are on the rise across the country and in Utah.
When he began his tenure as chairman six years ago, he issued a couple of dozen book-theft and fraud alerts each year. In April, when he stepped down, he was issuing more than 100 alerts a year.
Sanders, whose bookstore has also been targeted by thieves, attributed the rise to general public awareness of the value of antiquarian items due to the Internet and TV programs, like “Antiques Roadshow.”
“The vast majority of book theft is motivated by greed and profit,” Sanders said.
That is good news for the institute because those who steal books for money “do tend to get caught,” and their stolen books tend to resurface, said Christopher Brown-Syed, a professor at the School of Informatics at the University at Buffalo in New York.
The antiquarian-book sellers have a good network, and if thieves try to sell to one of them, there is a good chance they will be found, said Brown-Syed, who wrote an article on book theft.
Unfortunately, not all heisted books are peddled to antiquarian-book sellers.
“It runs the gamut,” said FBI Special Agent Bryan Stone, a member of the FBI Art Crime Team.
Thieves also target collectors as well as auction houses, and increasingly, the Internet, he said.
Last year, Sanders’ store was victimized by a man he calls the “Red Jaguar Thief,” who used the Internet and a West Valley City bookstore to move the stolen items.
The man, who allegedly stole four copies of the Book of Mormon over a two-week period using the same stolen credit card, was later arrested after arriving at a prearranged meeting in a red Jaguar.
Steve Huntsberry, a retired Washington state campus cop who is now executive director of Focus on Security, a magazine for archive and library security, said anything that changes hands, no matter the method, is more likely to surface.
That logic may not apply to the many nontraditional transactions that take place in the LDS book market. The market, Sanders said, sees a lot of private traffic.
For example, a copy of the Book of Commandments, a compilation of LDS Church founder Joseph Smith’s early prophecies, was sold at auction for $550,000, while, about the same time, another copy privately changed hands in Salt Lake County for $500,000.
“If they just passed into private hands, there’s no way of tracking them,” Sanders said, referring to the books stolen from the LDS institute.
The institute could face similar trouble in its quest to recover the books if they find their way to a collector.
In that case, those items “may never see the light of day,” Huntsberry said.
Everett Wilkie, chairman of the Security Committee of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, said those books usually aren’t uncovered until the collector dies or encounters financial distress.
He cited a case in Texas in which a GI in World War II stole books from Europe and brought them home. When his relatives tried to sell them nearly 50 years later, they learned the books had been stolen.
Then, there are “bibliomaniacs” – people who love books so much they will go to virtually any lengths to attain them, including theft, said Kevin Grace, head of the Archives and Rare Books Library at the University of Cincinnati.
Grace estimated bibliomaniacs are responsible for 5 percent of book theft.
“They become the personal property of the bibliomaniac,” he said. “The best situation for this theft of the Book of Mormon out there is they were stolen by ordinary book thieves.”
There was no evidence to support any theory, however. Nothing to indicate in whose hands the books have landed.
There were no signs of forced entry, and nothing else appeared to have been touched in the building, including another safe used for day-to-day operations.
Police are not sure if the thief even knew what was in the safe when it was stolen, and Sanders said it was possible the books are still locked in the safe.
If the thieves did manage to get to the books, they would find the copies had been stamped “LDS Institute.”
Both volumes were kept in dark reddish-brown protective boxes.
The books were in good, not pristine, condition. Police and the institute just want them back.
“The biggest issue with us is just the return of the books,” said institute director Allan Gunnerson. “We just want to be able to use them as we have.”