Saturday, July 19, 2008


The Gang That Couldn't Steal Stright

I'm in Slate this week with helpful advice for book thieves:

When Raymond Scott—the colorfully eccentric 51-year-old book dealer, champagne connoisseur, and shiny-suited wooer of nightclub dancers—walked into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., recently to get a 1623 First Folio of Shakespeare appraised, he didn't realize, he says, he'd be accused of possessing a folio stolen from the Durham University library in England. His folio, he claims, was simply a friend's lucky find in Cuba. As Scott proclaims in a Washington Post profile today, at the time of the 1998 robbery at Durham University, "I wouldn't have known the difference between a First Folio Shakespeare and a paperback Jackie Collins." The Folger's expert verification of the stolen Folio's identity, he contends, is just plain wrong.

Just how much Scott knows about rare first editions, only time—or perhaps a plea bargain—will tell. But what he clearly doesn't know is what any folio scholar could tell him: that aside from a face-melting Ark of the Covenant, a Shakespeare First Folio is the lousiest loot in the world to steal.

Individual folios have been so obsessively analyzed that they might as well be Lojacked at this point. My favorite anecdote of the whole thing was the last hapless attempt to swipe a Folio:

It's because of obstacles like these that the last theft of a First Folio—from the Williams College library in 1940—also ended disastrously. Four months after gaining entry with the forged papers of a fictitious "Professor Sinclair E. Gillingham" of Middlebury College, the thief turned himself in and fingered three fellow conspirators. The reason? The folio they'd stolen was hot enough to roast marshmallows over. It was unsalable. This didn't exactly end their criminal careers, as folio historian Harold Otness has noted: "The sentencing judge received a letter asking for leniency for the aircraft worker [of the gang] because he was designing a special military plane. That letter was a forgery."

I love that story so much that I may just have to adopt Sinclair G. Gillingham as a pen name. One detail that I left on the cutting-room floor: none of the four conspirators had ever graduated high school. "Professor Gillingham" was, in fact, a shoe salesman.

Dizzyheads, take note: before hitting Williams, the Folio stash that the gang first went to scope out was at... the former University of Buffalo.

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