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2 May, 2024 13:08

Rare Russian books vanishing from libraries across EU – NYT

Over 170 volumes by Russia’s most celebrated writers have been stolen, the paper reported
Rare Russian books vanishing from libraries across EU – NYT

Dozens of unique Russian books with a total value exceeding $2.6 million, including some works of poet Alexander Pushkin, have been stolen from libraries across Europe since the start of the Ukraine conflict in 2022, the New York Times reported on Wednesday.

One of the first thefts reportedly took place in April 2022 at the University of Tartu library in Estonia. Two men introducing themselves as Ukrainian researchers took several 19th century volumes containing the writings of Pushkin (1799-1837) and Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852).  

Four months later, a routine annual inventory at the library found that eight books that the same men had consulted had disappeared. They had been replaced with copies of such high quality that only experts could tell the difference, the NYT noted.

Similar incidents involving rare Russian books worth tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars have been reported at major libraries across Europe, including the National Library of Latvia, the State Library of Berlin, the National Library of Finland, and the National Library of France. The University of Warsaw library was the worst-hit, with 78 books unaccounted for, according to Europol.

In most cases, they were replaced with high-quality facsimiles that mimicked even the originals’ age-related deterioration, suggesting a sophisticated operation.  

Libraries are easy targets as they are often underfunded and lack security, Pierre-Yves Guillemet, a dealer in London specializing in rare Russian books, told the NYT.  

“It’s easy to get the books, it’s easy to know which books you should get and it’s easy to know the value,” he explained.  

Western sanctions prohibit EU dealers from selling rare books to Russians, prompting shadow operations which are difficult to trace, the outlet noted. However, the stolen Russian books are unlikely to turn up at official Western auctions, according to Guillemet.  

A special French police unit fighting cultural theft is overseeing the investigation in France and coordinating across Europe, and nine people have been detained in connection with the thefts, according to Europol. French authorities reportedly suspect an attempt by Russia to repatriate the treasures, the NYT said.