There’s something inherently fascinating—although I’ve never quite been able to put my finger on it—about those mysterious and supposedly intellectual fine art thieves who seem to make international headlines every few years. It’s very James Bond, I guess.

It turns out that stealing rare maps is also a thing. According to a fantastic book by Miles Harvey I recently read about this surprisingly odd underworld, map thieves in the United States tend to ply their trade in rickety old Eastern Seaboard university libraries, where they use X-Acto blades to remove maps from bound books.

And of course, historic bound volumes themselves are stolen all the time, it seems. Hell, I’d venture to guess that just about everyone reading this post has stolen at least a book or two at some point in their lives, rare or not. But you want to know who has a serious—and I mean serious—no-joke addiction to stealing rare books? The former staffer of the Lambeth Palace Library in London, who’s written about in this New York Post piece. That’s who.

This story is just ridiculous. Apparently, “as long ago as 1975, the palace’s librarian realized that there were gaps on the library’s shelves and estimated that around 60 volumes were missing,” according to the Post. Then, in February 2011, a letter written by a former staffer arrived at the library; it had apparently been written just prior to the staffer’s death, and it “revealed the whereabouts of many of the library’s precious books.”

That sounds like a pretty good end to a rather unfortunate story. But it gets better: When the former staffer’s home was eventually searched, they didn’t find only the 60 rare books—some 1,400 books were discovered. One of them was worth nearly a quarter of a million dollars alone.

Click here to read the full story.



  1. Back in the day…I worked in a government documents library as a student librarian. We shared space with the rare book people. I explained to the rare book curator how trivialy easy it would be to walk out with his entire collection: door hinges on the outside of the doors, door window that screwed in from the outside, key kept in a Case desk, walls that didn’t rise above the cieling panels, no security system on the library, no customer counters, no maintenance from Friday at 5pm to Monday morning, Library closed all Sunday. I remember his exact words, “Sturmund, how did a kid your age get to be so cynical?”. When they took thier hit the only thing they knew for certain was tens of thousands of dollars worth of Gilded Age and Vatican books had been lifted sometime during a four month period. Then I tried to explain to them that Joint Allied Forces documents from the storming of Normandy Beach shouldn’t be kept on a shelf where anyone could walk away with them. Their response, “Who would want that stuff?”.

  2. Another advantage of eBooks that had not previously occurred to me.

    Say I own a historic first edition copy of the first eBook that was ever created and sold. How could anyone “steal” it? I would simply restore it from my backup copy. Why would anyone steal it? Anyone who wanted a copy could easily get a copy from someone that already had one.

    There is zero incentive to steal a “historic,” “original” eBook.

  3. Gary, if it can be copied, it can’t be rare.

    Book thieves who aren’t in it for profit are essentially dragons collecting and hoarding gold which they refuse to share in any sense with anyone else. It’s a sickness as well as a paranoia that others will take it away from them.

  4. I should add that “first editions” of the early ebooks do exist as CDs and floppy disks which had cover art or identification on the media and cover jackets. My books published in the late Nineties up to 2000 by epublishers were all sold as floppies with cover art in addition to digital copies.

    One of mine, in fact, is probably one of the rarest, if not the rarest, because even I didn’t have a diskette copy of THE IMMORTALS before it was pulled from sale after my major disagreement with FictionWorks. One of my readers hearing I didn’t have a copy sent me hers so I now have it.

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