Philly Confidential
Too Good to Be True . . .
PRB&M Partner David Szewczyk's Chronology of
an Escapade in Rare Book Research

On 17 August 1993 I received a telephone call from a man identifying himself as Mr. *****. He said he was a book collector who had been collecting for "a number of years" and that he had recently begun to redefine the scope of his collection. Consequently, he now had a number of books that were no longer of interest to him. He had one book that he was sure would "interest" me. When I asked if he meant by that, that he had a book that he wanted to sell to me, he replied, "Yes." I inquired what the book in question was, and he replied by reading me a bibliographic entry for a copy of a book whose author and title I must refrain from giving for reasons soon to be obvious—but which entry ended by stating the book was printed in Santa Fe del Nuevo Reyno at the Imprenta de la Compañía de Jesús, [ca. 1741].

I replied that I might be interested in buying that book, and asked how much he wanted for it and if he was aware that the town of Santa Fe in which the book was printed was not Santa Fe, New Mexico, but what is now known as Bogotá, Colombia. To the latter, he said, "Yes, I am," but it was clear that he had thought the book printed in the U.S. Southwest. He also said he thought the book to be worth between $1,500 and $2,000, and asked if would I be willing to pay that much for it.

I did not know the book in question: I had never seen a copy. I did know that if what Mr. ***** was telling me was true, the book was one of the first printed in Colombia, and consequently it would easily be worth the amount he was asking. I inquired if he had collated the volume and he evaded the question. I then asked where he had acquired the book, and he said he had purchased it in England about four or five years previously.

I ended my part of the telephone conversation by saying I would really need to see the book before I could make an offer for it. He agreed to send it to me via U.S. mail, insured or registered, and he also sent via fax a copy of his description of the book. At the top of that fax was his own fax number and the name of a company I had never heard of.

Later that day I checked our mailing list and discovered that Mr. ***** was on our list as a dealer, not as a book collector, and that he had written to us saying he was interested in 17th-century English books. Mr. ***** was being less than totally honest with me.

The book arrived 24 August and I unwrapped and examined it cursorily. It was immediately evident that the book was loose in its binding and that it had a crude facsimile title-page reproduced from a screened, half-tone photograph, that is, one taken from a magazine, newspaper, or journal. This lowered the book's potential value, but it still had value sufficient to interest me. During the morning of the 24th I sent a fax to Mr. ***** concerning the book's arrival and the fact that book lacked its title-page; I promised to research the book and see how much I could offer. I set it aside as I had other, more pressing matters to attend to.

On 30 August I sat down and minutely examined the waiting copy of this South American treasure and discovered: 1) that the volume had pencil notations in it of an American, not a British, bookseller, 2) that almost certainly it had been last catalogued by a bookseller before 1971, as the bibliographical citation was to the first edition of Palau's Manual del librero hispano-americano, and the pertinent volume of the second edition appeared in 1971, and 3) that not only did it lack its title-page but it also lacked some number of pages at the end.

The book was not jibing with "the facts" about it that Mr. ***** had presented to me. It clearly came from an American bookseller, not a British one, and it had in all likelihood been last sold some 20 years before I set eyes on it, not within the previous four or five. More suspicion!

I looked in the bibliographical sources available to me in my shop hoping to find out what else exactly was missing from the work. Instead, I determined that the volume was not listed in Medina's standard bibliography of early Bogotá imprints, nor was it listed in the National Union Catalogue of Pre-1956 Imprints. Checking the two major on-line bibliographical reporting/cataloguing systems, RLIN and OCLC, to see if any copies were reported as owned by American libraries—copies that would tell me what was missing from the end of this copy—I discovered that the ONLY copy listed was at the library of @@@@@ University.

According to our mailing list record Mr. ***** lived only a few miles from @@@@@. This immediately made me terminally suspicious: The purported existence of two copies of such an extremely rare book in the small region around @@@@@ was more than straining my credulity.

At 2 PM I called directory assistance and received the number for the university, dialed it, received the number for the reference desk, and then asked to be connected directly. I asked the reference librarian to confirm that @@@@@ owned a copy of the book in question and to give me its call number and collation or page count. He came back on the line and said that the library did indeed own a copy of the book, and he then gave me its call number and page count. "Both" copies were incomplete at the end in exactly the same way and "each" had a facsimile title-page. Yeah, right, "both" copies!

I then asked the reference librarian to connect me with the Special Collections Department. I spoke with Mr. ##### and determined that the volume in question had not been deaccessioned and that it was supposed to be on a shelf in a secure area. I asked him to please confirm that the book was still there as I had been offered a copy of the book that matched exactly the copy described in the university's library catalogue.

Mr. ##### returned my call and said the book was missing.

I immediately made sure that the packaging of the book was retrieved from our store's storage area in order to prove that the book had been sent via U.S. mail in case the Postal Authorities became involved—this could assist prosecution for mail fraud.

On 31 August I notified the Security Officer of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (Mr. Ron Leiberman) about the theft of the book from @@@@@ and Mr. *****'s attempt to sell it to me. He contacted the F.B.I. and the university authorities.

On 2 September I had my first conversation with Assistant Director of University Police, Mr. &&&&&. I recounted the above chronology for him.

A few days later Mr. ***** called to discuss the book. We couldn't agree on a price and I promised to return it—but I consciously failed to say when or to whom I would return it.

The next day F.B.I. Special Agent Robert Bazin of the Philadelphia field office visited me at my shop and interviewed me concerning the book. He took the volume and the wrappings away with him, giving me a receipt.

Things slowed down after that. The university determined that Mr. *****’s son was a student at the school and had privileges in the library that gave him access to the "secure area," and that the son had purchased a box of books from the university that included deaccessioned materials from a shelf near that on which the Colombian treasure was supposed to sit. The son claimed that the book must have fallen into the box and that no one noticed. He never explained why he did not return a book he knew was not part of the "deal" and which he and his father felt had considerable value.

The university got its book back, but did not pursue aggressively how Mr. *****’s son came into possession of it. It did review security measures and the granting of privileges allowing non-librarians into "secure" areas.

Incomplete and sorry copy of this Bogotá imprint as the stolen one offered to me was, I would have been happy to hold and sell it, for its importance and extraordinary rarity. I regretted that the volume's coming to me had turned out, on my investigation, to be "too good to be true."


EPILOGUE

Three years later I received a list of books that institution %%%% wished to sell—and on that list was a complete copy of the now very familiar to me early Bogotá book. With all that I then knew about the rarity, I was able to make the institution a very generous offer. A very lucky U.S. collector now owns this piece of Colombian bibliographical gold.


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