Philly Confidential
Chronology of a Rare Book Sting
PRB&M Partner David Szewczyk's Account of
Not QUITE Just Another Day at the Office . . .

Tuesday, 14 April 1992


9:30 am There is a message on the shop's answering machine from Deborah Shaw Fineberg at Bauman Rare Books about a stolen book.

10:30 am I return the call and Deborah gives me the particulars. The office of one of their customers, along with all the other offices in a 14-story building, was burgled during the weekend and the thieves stole a copy of the first edition of Moby Dick, bound in faded slate-grey cloth with the publisher's device embossed on the covers, small repairs to the top and bottom of the spine, orange endpapers, faint dampstaining in the lower corners of the pages in the last half of the volume, and with the eight pages of ads present at the back.

2:30 pm I take a call from "Joseph" wanting to sell a copy of Moby Dick with exactly the same physical description as the stolen copy. He wants to know how much it is worth, and I tell him "there's a wide range." He says he is interested in selling it but that the book belongs to his parents and is in Florida: He can have them FedEx it to him and I can see it on Thursday. I agree. He gives a telephone number.

2:33 pm I hang up and press "*57" to put a trace on the call in the Bell Atlantic computer.

2:34 pm I call the Baumans to give them an update and find out more about the specific copy.

4:30 pm I receive a call from Mr. *****, the victim/owner, expressing gratitude for my cooperation and wanting to hear firsthand about the telephone calls.

5:00 pm I call Philadelphia Central Detectives and speak with Det. Adams, and tell him all I know and that I hope to be able to lure "Joseph" into downtown Philadelphia. He says he is interested and would like to arrest "Joseph" if I can, indeed, lure him into his jurisdiction.

 

Wednesday, 15 April
10:35 am "Joseph" calls. He gives last name as "@@@@@" and sets up an appointment for me to see the book at 2 pm on 16 April, and to make an offer. He says the book is being FedExed from Florida and he gives me the address of his office in Springfield, Delaware County. He says he knows my reputation (!) and wants to give me first refusal, but says he has also been in touch with Sotheby's and Christie's in NY.

10:40 am I call Natalie Bauman and bring her up to date on my most recent conversation with "Joseph."

10:45 am I call the Springfield Police and speak with Det. John Ryan and tell him all about the theft and the telephone calls. He asks if I would be willing to go through with the meeting and to take him along as my "partner." I say yes. He says he will verify what I have told him about the burglary and talk to his superiors, and talk to me again later in the day.

12:15 pm Det. Ryan calls to say that things are moving along. He will definitely be present at the "buy." He says he will be back in touch later today with more specifics for tomorrow's events, and he wants Natalie and me at the headquarters early, abou11, to go over plans. He gives me directions for getting there.

5:00 pm Det. Adams of Philadelphia Central Detectives calls and I bring him up to date, and he wishes me luck tomorrow.

9:00 pm Det. Ryan calls me at home to reconfirm and to say that he may be a little late for the 11 am meeting.

 

Thursday, 16 April
9:30 am I arrive at the Baumans' store and sit with David and Natalie to review everything, and talk about books, thieves, and business in general. Natalie calls Clarence Wolf at the MacManus Company and he agrees to lend her a copy of the first edition of Moby Dick to take along so she can tutor Det. Ryan about bindings, embossing, endpapers, etc. on Moby Dick.

10:30 am Natalie, David, and I leave Philadelphia together for our meeting with the Springfield police.

11:00 am We arrive and immediately go into a meeting with the township and county police and a representative of the District Attorney's office. We reiterate for the D.A.'s office our accounts of the sale of the book, its theft, the Baumans' notification of booksellers, my contacts with "Joseph," his allegations of his ownership and the whereabouts of the book, and his interest in selling it.

12:15 pm David, Natalie, and I go to lunch.

1:15 pm We arrive back at the police station and meet more of the detectives involved in the operation and also meet Mrs. *****, the wife of the victim. He is out of town on business, but she has gone to the trouble of bringing along a quantity of cash to use as flash-money if required.

2:00 pm Det. Ryan and I leave in the Baumans' Lincoln town car ("it looks a lot less like a detective's car," as Ryan observes) for our meeting with "Joseph."

2:05 pm We arrive at "Joseph's" office in a small office building on a commercial road. We enter his office and find that he has a client with him. The client leaves within a minute of our arrival. I introduce Det. Ryan as my partner and we are invited in and offered chairs. "Joseph" produces a FedEx box that has already been opened. It contains a half blue morocco slipcase bearing precisely the same lettering as had been on the one that had encased and protected the stolen copy. "Joseph" hands it to me, and I open the case and see a first edition Moby Dick. I carefully examine the copy and find that it matches precisely the physical description of the missing copy, and that on page ### it has the owner's initials very precisely and unobtrusively pencilled exactly where he has told us they would be! I pass the book to my "partner," Det. Ryan, and while he too verifies that it is the stolen Melville, I engage "Joseph" in conversation about how the book came into his possession: He reiterates that it belongs to his mother who is now retired and living in Florida, and that it had originally belonged to his grandfather. "Joseph" explains that when the grandfather died the family had to hire a separate truck just to move his books. Det. Ryan asks if the family has other books for sale and the reply is "yes," but it is not ready to sell them en bloc; it wants to see how it goes selling one or two at a time. Det. Ryan and I indicate that we might be willing to buy the book and ask the selling price. "Joseph" wants us to make an offer. I propose $7,000 and am told that Sotheby's and Christie's have indicated without having seen the book that it might sell for $15,000 to $18,000. I point out the hazards of selling at auction, the months of delay, and the percentage of hammer price that is lost to the auction house. He asks for $11,000 and Det. Ryan and I confer and counter with $10,000. "Joseph" then picks up the telephone and "calls his mother" in Florida. He speaks into the phone and waits for "Mother" to reply, carrying on this "cversation" for about two minutes and in the end convincing "Mom" to accept the $10,000. At the end of the "conversation" he addresses Det. Ryan and me and says, "Well, I guess you've bought yourselves a book." I excuse myself to go out to the car to get the money.

2:20 pm I am outside the building and Det. Ryan's fellow detectives are rushing toward it. They ask if I am sure that the book is the stolen volume and I assure them that it is. They enter the building and assist Det. Ryan in arresting "Joseph."

2:25 pm A black and white police patrol car arrives.

2:30 pm The patrol car leaves with "Joseph" in the rear, looking very stunned and angry.

2:40 pm Det. Ryan returns to the Baumans' car and says that on the basis of the arrest, the police are going to court to seek a search warrant of "Joseph's" office and house, in hopes of finding more property taken in the burglary.

2:45 pm We arrive back at the police station and find that the Baumans and Mrs. ***** have gone out for coffee—in a restaurant just two buildings away from where Det. Ryan and I have just met with Joseph! I call Cynthia, my business partner, who is home in bed, very sick, and also more than a little worried about me. I assure her I am fine and I tell her that the "sting" operation has been successful. She promptly falls back asleep. I want to call my wife at her office but find that I have failed to bring her telephone number with me and I have never yet learned it, thanks to the programmable memory feature of my office phone.

3:00 pm Natalie, David, and Mrs. ***** return and are pleased to see that I have no holes or bruises and then think to ask if the book has been recovered. I assure them that it is safe and that the entire operation went smoothly, without a hitch. We sit in the police chief's office and I recount the events in "Joseph's" office, with detectives coming in from time to time to tell us of the things that were said and done after I had left—for example, that when Joseph was told he was under arrest as part of a burglary investigation, he replied that the detectives were "messing up" an investigation of his! The detectives review events and photograph the book, returning it to Mrs.*****'s care after obtaining the promise that it will be held safely and made available as evidence at the trial. Since the banks are closed, the police are concerned that Mrs. ***** will have to have "all that cash" with her overnight, so we count Mrs. *****'s money and the police lock it in their safe; they take a deposit slip from Mrs. ***** and promise to deposit the money for her tomorrow.

3:45 pm Natalie, David, Mrs. *****, and I follow the detectives to Media, the county seat. The detectives take videotaped depositions from Mrs. *****, Natalie, and me.

5:00 pm David, Natalie, and I say good-bye to the detectives and to Mrs. *****, who is firmly holding the Moby Dick, and head back to Philadelphia. It is rush hour and travel is slow.

6:00 pm Natalie and David drop me at my shop. I check the day's mail and the phone and fax orders and find that my niece has had everything well in hand during my day out of the office. I call Cynthia and assure her that I will stop by and visit with her later in the evening.

6:15 pm I walk in the front door of my house, happy to be home. Peggy, my wife, is very relieved that the events unfolded as smoothly as they did.

9:00 pm Mr. *****, safely home from his business trip and pleased to have the Moby Dick safely back in his possession, calls me at home and invites me, my wife, and Cynthia to lunch next week at Philadelphia's finest restaurant. I accept with pleasure!

This Chronology originally appeared in the
AB Bookman's Weekly, 7 September 1992.

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