A less considered part of the illicit cultural property market regards stolen books and documents. Yet, recent thefts have occurred at world-famous Libraries: the Yale Beinecke Library, the Mount Saint Vincent University Library and the Cambridge University Library, to name a few. Knowledge crimes such as these have taken place for centuries, if not millennia.
In 2019 Max van Steen took us through the unbelievable journey of Leo Allatius’ library in Knowledge as a Weapon. He explored the significance of pillaging the Bibliotheca Palatina in 1622 and claimed that the destruction took away Protestant princes’ most prized humanist texts, “obliterating centuries of collecting a body of knowledge that explained and underpinned [their] rule”.
It goes without saying that, beyond socioeconomic worth, the theft of texts can reach symbolic dimensions. High-value books and documents may sell for tens of thousands (even billions) of dollars in the art market. But some of those texts are priceless to a different kind of sum, unquantifiable in monetary terms. All things can be stolen, but the theft of knowledge attunes itself to a form of devastation separate from that of profit loss – we’ll explore that range in today’s post.
A hallowed text: the Bill of Rights
In 1789 James Madison’s proposed Bill of Rights was copied out thirteen times and sent to each of the thirteen States of America. These documents were viewed as add-ons to the US Constitution, yet they were essential to codifying US Law. The most famous of these constitutions are the Freedom of Speech, the First Amendment, the Freedom of Religion, the Freedom of Press, and the Freedom to Bare Arms. Together these codices established the Bill of Rights. Although the thirteen States were supposed to sign off on and return them to the Federal Government (to be maintained as part of the Law of Constitution), most kept hold of their copies. According to Wittman, only two were ever sent back.
Written by the scribes of George Washington in iron gall ink, the Bill of Rights were drafted onto slips of cow hide. Our Bill was sent to North Carolina. It made its way into the State Archives and would have remained there were it not for the Civil War in 1865. Troops returning to the Union site after the sacking of Atlanta (picture Gone with the Wind – without Rhett Butler and Scarlett) stopped in at the State House. As the city mayor was turning over the keys, a group of pillagers visited the Archives and one individual from Indiana came out with the Bill of Rights. This trooper took his loot home. The Bill passed into the hands of a local shop-owner, who bought it for the grand total of $5. In 1926 an attempt to sell it back to North Carolina was rebuked. The State claimed that they would “not buy back stolen property”. Dumbfounding though it is, a discussion like this would certainly not take place nowadays.
In 2004 a Connecticut-based dealer working at the Antiques Road Show (ho hum: read prior post) heard about a Bill of Rights sitting idly on a private owner’s wall in Indiana. He tracked the family down and bought the heirloom for $110, 000. Amassing a group of like-minded investors, this dealer then went to National Constitutional Centre (NCC) (at the time not yet open) and offered to sell the Bill for $4million. The NCC were very interested, which put a bee in the bonnet of North Carolina – who were thankfully a little more invested this time around.
To confirm that the document was an original Bill of Rights, an authenticator was put to task. They were able to match the scribe’s writing to original letters stored in the North Carolina Archives. With definitive proof, the expert concluded that the same person who had written the letters had also written the Bill. In the grand reveal, it also became clear that this was a publicly owned document. Which mean its being offered up for private sale was illegal. Thus the US Attorney was approached and Wittman’s undercover operation began. “Contracts” were set up with the sellers to the agreed price of $4million. One particularly dodgy clause in the contract established that if, after a sale had been made, anyone claimed ownership of the document the dealers would be able to walk away with cash in tow. “But we weren’t going to give them any money anyway”, Robert Wittman shrugged. And so, the deal was signed and the folio was brought into the conference room via the front door by a delivery boy on a bike.
Once we had seen it, we could protect it.
The team secured the document, detaining everyone for interviews. And whilst the US Attorney decided not to prosecute (on grounds that the sellers were working on the advice of their attorney and were not liable for the crime), it was still an incredible success. The page, valued at $100million, is possibly one of the most hallowed texts in America today. Wittman claimed that only one document is more cherished than the Bill of Rights – that being the Declaration of Independence in Washington.
“When you take an oath as a Government Employee Worker for the FBI you have to have to raise your right hand and swear to protect the Constitution. I never thought I would have to protect the actual document, to have it in my hands…”
A tale of two Bibles: from Shakespeare to Darwin
On the other hand, one of the most important documents in world history is William Shakespeare’s complete works. It was created in 1630 by the associates of Shakespeare (John Heminges and Henry Condell), just seven years after the death of the infamous bard. There were approximately 750 copies made. The folio included 36 plays, 19 of which had never been documented before – such as the Tempest, Macbeth and Julius Caesar. Its value was $10million, established in October 2020 by Christies who sold their copy to a private collector.
Our text had, of course, been stolen (spoiler!) from the Rare Book Section at Durham University in England. There are only about 200 copies remaining today, so when the folio turned up for sale at a library in Washington DC… well, our heroic expert (who was even bribed with cigars from Cuba) quick-wittedly retained the copy “on inspection” and called the FBI – who alerted Durham – who alerted the Police in England – who caught up with our hot-footed little thief and presented the man with a hefty 9-year prison sentence. The end.
Our second literary bible, this time being one of scientific pursuit, is Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Written in November 1859, it marks the first occasion in which the idea of primary selection in nature was proposed. Originally housed at Mount Saint Vincent University, up near Nova Scotia, the text was nicked by a true-born kleptomaniac named John Mark Tillman. The FBI recovered 1600 other stolen items from within the confines of his house.
Tillman stands as the most prolific book thief in Canadian history (if that’s a title that appeals to anyone). He was charged with 40 counts of theft by Canadian Authorities, and was formerly convicted. Tillman had sold Origin of Species to a dealer, who had then attempted to sell it on through Sotheby’s. With this being an international case, Homeland Security of Investigations were contacted and the sale was ultimately terminated. The text, recovered and returned with assistance from Sotheby’s, made its way back home mostly unharmed. Wittman ended this tale by observing that “[often] the theft of these items stay out there in the world of commerce with people being defrauded [again and again]…”. Without the combined effort of all parties, due diligence can sometimes be overlooked.
The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the stolen secrets of the Third Reich
Before I begin the final section, I must point readers towards Robert Wittman’s book: The Devil’s Diary. The first part explores the following investigation in exquisite detail whilst the rest of book relates the contents of Rosenberg’s diary. It’s not translated verbatim, but the chapters describe real-life events matched to that day’s diary entry. Wittman seeks to illustrate the mindset of the man. On the day Germany invaded Russia, for example, Rosenberg was tending his garden of roses…
The diary of Alfred Rosenberg is a unique piece of cultural heritage. Other cases discussed by Wittman include the thefts of: Shakespeare’s portfolio of plays and odes, worldly recognised and renown; the Bill of Rights, which has been copied out thirteen times; and the Origin of Species, reproduced several times – but nobody, until very recently, had an account of what’s splayed across the 400 pages of wartime diary. Rosenberg was a chief civil scientist and philosopher for Adolf Hitler, the latter of whom prescribed to many of his theories. In the photograph below, Rosenberg stands on the Führer’s left. This image was taken in the Beer Hall Putsch, also known as the Munich Putsch. History dubs it as a failed coup d’état Nazi Party meeting. But it successfully bridged the tie between wholly unsound minds.
Rosenberg watched as the war ended in 1919 and deflated German men returned home. He directed his blame towards the Jews in Russia, who he believed set up the Bolshevik Revolution in lieu of wanting to overpower Germany. In order to protect his nation, Rosenberg believed that all Jews “had to be destroyed” – thus the beginnings of the national socialist movement in Berlin began. Adolf Hitler, sent to spy on Rosenberg during these Munich Putsch meetings in 1919 and 1920 became enamoured by the theorist’s rants. Within a year the two were inseparable: Hitler became head of Nazi party and his autobiographical manifesto Mein Kampf sat beside Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century, a staple for any pro-Nazi coffee table. His investment in civil scientism dubbed Rosenberg the “Messenger of Hate” against the Church, Jews – or anyone who stood against the Nazi party.
At one point, Rosenberg was made the Chief Führer of the East under Hitler and Head of the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR). Amidst all the other criminal acts that took place during this time, he was largely in charge of pillaging art, furniture, and other valuable material from Jewish homes – redistributing stolen goods amongst the families of those who’d lost family in the War. Here is an excerpt from The Nazi Plan (1945). Seated, Alfred Rosenberg describes being introduced to Hitler in 1921, his work on the Nazi newspaper Völkischer Beobachter, and the struggles that ensued after the attempted putsch in Munich in 1927.
When Allied troops overpowered German rule and invaded, Baron Kurt von Behr (the individual chiefly responsible for organised looting in France) saw no way out. He and his wife toasted each other with a bottle of 1918 champagne laced with cyanide. They were found a few days later amidst a cache of documents that included the Rosenberg diary. Robert Kempner was able to convict and sentence several members of the Nazi party based off intel from Rosenberg’s 400-page aide-mémoire. When he was arrested in 1945 and put on trial in June of ’46, Rosenberg was one of the first ten hung as a war criminal – the evidence alarmingly justified in his own slapdash scrawl.
Lawyer Robert Kempner was expelled from Germany in 1935. After WWII, he returned to serve as assistant US Chief Counsel during the IMT (crimes against peace; war crimes; and crimes against humanity) at Nuremberg. His background is plagued with a sequence of horrific experiences. It begins with participating in the First World War and later becoming Head of the Legal Group of the Prussian Police in Germany. In the mid-1930s he was arrested and placed in a concentration camp. Because of contacts within the Nazi party and legal system, he was able to free himself in 30 days. Creating a school for Jewish children in Italy, Kempner worked to protect the most vulnerable – at least until Italy succumbed to Fascist idolism. From there he travelled to Nice in France but left shortly after the German occupation. Finally, something good came about in the form of a friend at the University of Pennsylvania. This friend secured Kempner a job as a lecturer in the legal programme.
On assignments for the FBI and White House, Kempner was able to establish himself as a Nazi prosecutor. He had a knowledge of German Law and claimed he would be able to act judiciously in the coming trials. When the war was finally won, he immediately set out in pursuit of justice. Kempner stayed in Nuremberg, diligently prosecuting until 1949. He sent all his documents (seven crates) back to Philadelphia and continued his outstanding work, fuelled by the unreckonable reality that over five million Jewish people were killed by roughly one thousand Nazis. That math never added up for Kempner, who died in mid 1990s still fighting – surrounded by an incredible collection of wartime material that included the Rosenberg diaries… which were soon-after stolen.
I won’t go into detail about the investigation that took place – you’ll have to read The Devil’s Diary for a full account. But I do want to overview the middle stages of the investigation, which took several years to reach and involved a thief devoid of empathy – who felt compelled to sabotage an elderly lady’s campaign for preserving Kempner’s legacy. Two years after this death, Kempner’s loyal aide Jane Lester was still trying to figure out how to keep his story alive. She lent Rosenberg’s diary for “research purposes” to a Canadian professor. This man made no move to uphold his academic commitment to Lester, and was instead invested in his own financial gain – believing that her soon-predicted passing would enable him to sell Kempner’s documents to the Holocaust Museum without attracting too many questions. Wittman was introduced to the case in 2001, when the chief archivist for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum contacted him to say that someone was trying to sell it for upwards of a million dollars. Ten years later, they discovered the fraudulent collegium and retained Rosenberg’s diary amongst a vast array of other stolen and significant texts. Wittman was able to salvage the book and the rest of the Robert Kempner’s stolen collection.
The Rosenberg Diary is invaluable for a number of reasons. Whilst a lot of German generals wrote diaries for posterity, predicting a positive end to the War and immortality/fame in written text, they tended to sugar-coat their relationships with hate-enablers, beautifying their insidious work. Their notes are, in large, arbitrary nonsense. But Rosenberg’s diary, unintended for fame and fortune, was filled with his own personal thoughts. He did not keep a record of the everyday – only events that were of utmost important to him: his meetings, his luncheons, his birthdays attended by the Führer… Written between 1936-45, they retain excellent primarily source material from the highest reaches of the Nazi party.
The diary is crucial to understanding Naziism. In essence, the text gives details that one would never know about the leadership of the Nazi party and state. The German Student Union’s Book Burning campaign got it wrong: they destroyed texts with views that were either subversive or represented ideologies that opposed their own. Power, however, comes from the knowledge-holder, and their ability to explore opposing perspectives. Making an educated decision after studying all angles objectively can be far more destructive to ideology than lighting a fire and burning paper.
If this series of reflections on Robert Wittman’s class interest you, please consider signing up for Fakes, Frauds and Forgeries: Issues in Authenticity with the discount code: NIC10. This will give you 10% off the course. You can read more about it here and you can register here.
About the author: Alexandra Taylor is a paintings conservator. She is currently a Fellow at Stichting Restauratie Atelier Limburg (SRAL). Prior to this she has worked internationally, holding positions at Saltmarsh Paintings Conservation in Cambridge and the Phoebus Foundation in Antwerp. Her interests lie in the treatment of Old Masters and the fundamental aspects of paintings analysis, research, and the valorisation of results. Alexandra received her conjoint BFA(h)/BA at the University of Auckland (NZ) and MA in Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne (AUS). She is a 2019 GAF Fellow at the International Specialised Skills Institute in Melbourne (AUS). Her Fellowship investigated current practice in preventing art crimes in conservation with the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (IT).
Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.
Thanks to Nathaniel Goldblum from Christie’s Education for granting me the opportunity to review such a fascinating talk.
In 2008 Robert Wittman left the FBI and established his own company, Robert Wittman Incorporated (see below). A reason for breaking away and turning to the private sector includes being able to assess all types of situations related to art crime – including museum security service, collection management and expert witness testimony. The FBI turns away 80% of complaints because they aren’t considered criminal offences. Now, Robert Wittman can assist with both criminal and civil disputes – and currently handles 40-55 cases at any given moment.
For more information on Robert Wittman Inc., visit: https://www.robertwittmaninc.com/
Some of Wittman’s more daring adventures are catalogued in two texts: Priceless and The Devil’s Diary: Alfred Rosenberg and the Stolen Secrets of the Third Reich.
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