Recognizing Manuscript Theft

IMG_9232 While some of these margin mysteries may never be solved, they often bring to light other points of interest in the manuscript world. The Book of Hours (Flemish, 15th c.) at Mount Holyoke College’s Art Museum holds one such mystery. While working on cataloging this manuscript, I noticed something out of place- a thing strip of vellum sticking up from the binding between two leaves.  I found this occurring in two additional spots. This meant not only that there were three missing leaves, but the extant strip of vellum showed that these leaves had been cut out of the book.

IMG_9229This particular manuscript was rebound in the 19th century. In the process it is not uncommon to lose leaves, or  even whole sections, but not carefully cut pages, done  with a knife or razor blade.  There is no way we can know when such an event occurred as there is no previous record mentioning the missing leaves. It could have happened before the manuscript arrived at the museum in 1964 or during it’s time here while on display. This manuscript is often shown in exhibits as well as several times per semester as a teaching tool for the college’s classes. Would someone really steal these pages?

The answer is yes, this crime happens more often than you would believe. The tiny size (55 x 81mm) and high appraisal rate would have made this book a prime target. It is doubtful though that any theft would have occurred while in the custody of this museum, which keeps constant vigil over the book when brought out, as well as keeping it under restricted access at all other times. This leads me then to question why and how such thefts occur?

The why part is easiest to answer: selling single manuscript leaves is a much larger market than one might assume- as in millions of dollars. A single leaf can be worth up to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Just a single leaf like our missing ones could easily go for $300 each on a site like eBay. Take a quick  look at an eBay page like this one to browse how easy it is to buy manuscript leaves:  IMG_9233Even if the item is being put up for sale by a reputable buyer, antiquarian book seller, private collector, or auction house, they may be unwittingly selling stolen property. There are a growing number of notable cases where the buyer’s sources are providing stolen pieces and claiming they were obtained in some other way. When caught, these individuals are often fined huge recitation charges and serve both jail time and community service. To read more about the most notorious cases of manuscript theft: How the thieves gain access to the manuscripts in question is another large concern. Most thefts take place in reading room and map rooms at major libraries, and so a call for more vigilant security  is constantly being issued. Too often these thefts are internal, carried out by those granted greater access to the materials, such as curators or scholars. To read more about internal theft and security issues: That abuse of prestigious status can gain scholars, such as Anthony Melnikas, unsupervised access to manuscripts. To read more about the investigation into his thefts: 

To scale full size manuscript.

To scale full size manuscript.

IMG_9235Even if museums and collections are fortunate enough to discover their stolen property out on the market, it is not always possible for them to retrieve it. Some institutions do not even report the theft, often out of concern for their reputation. Too many however, they are never made aware that the theft has even occurred, such as the case with our Book of Hours. The tiny size of this book creates an incredibly tight binding which hid the edges of the missing leaves from obvious view. Discovering this made the issue of manuscript theft all too real for me, an issue not acknowledged enough; raised awareness of the situation will raise awareness in the reading rooms. I encourage all manuscript enthusiasts to always keep one eye open to their surrounding, to better aid museums in protecting these special books. No matter how valuable one page may be, a complete manuscript will always be worth much more than mere money.

Have you come across this issue before? Do you have thoughts any of these points? Please share your insights in the comments below!


4 responses to “Recognizing Manuscript Theft

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the Fitzwilliam Book of Hours | The Leather Library·

  2. Pingback: Fitzwilliam Book of Hours Video Overview | The Leather Library·

  3. After further examination, along with the expert opinion of Lisa Fagin Davis, we have determined that these strips of vellum are more likely page stubs. This means that the miniatures were made separate from the rest of the book and then tipped in later, thus leaving the edge of the leaf still visible.

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