Serial thefts of incunabula worth nearly two million euros from libraries in Eastern Europe have left traces leading to Russia.
In two years, shelves of 19th century Russian literaturee century were looted from libraries in Poland and the Baltics, the originals having been replaced by copies. The Warsaw University Library only became aware of the thefts, including first editions of works by Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, last month.
According to a university employee close to the case, the value of the books stolen in Warsaw amounts to “around a million euros”. “It’s like we stole the crown jewels”declared to AFP Hieronim Grala, former diplomat, expert in Russian politics and professor at the University of Warsaw.
The Warsaw robbery is not an isolated event. Large libraries in the three Baltic countries have also fallen prey to thieves and, each time, it is 19th century Russian literaturee century that was targeted. According to experts, the trail leads to Moscow, where works similar to the stolen pieces were sold at auction.
The first case was detected in April 2022, at the National Library of Latvia where thieves took three books. A Georgian citizen was convicted of the theft and sentenced to six months in prison. The same month, two men claiming to work on censorship and editorial policy in Russia in the early 19th centurye century came to the university library in Tartu, Estonia, to study works by Pushkin and Gogol. Four months later the library realized that they had replaced eight works with copies, the total value of which is estimated at 158,000 euros.
In May, it was in Lithuania, at the library of Vilnius University, that 17 books, worth some 440,000 euros, disappeared. “Most of the stolen books were replaced with non-original copies”Vitkauskaite-Satkauskiene, spokesperson for the Lithuanian Prosecutor General’s Office, told Gintare.
Warsaw Library has so far identified 79 missing books from its 19th century Russian cataloge century. “Here the thieves operated on an industrial scale”, explains an employee of the university library on condition of anonymity. The copies left by the thieves, seen by AFP, range from sloppy imitations to careful counterfeits.
And while these books are considered still part of the collection, the originals are sold in Moscow. “There is a memo dated December 22, 2022 confirming that the books are in their place” in Warsaw, says Mr. Grala. “The same day, during an auction in Moscow, one of these books sold for 30,500 euros”.
“Organized from Russia”
AFP was able to view screenshots of auctions at Litfond – a house operating in Moscow and St. Petersburg – showing books bearing stamps and catalog numbers from the University of Warsaw. “It is clear to me that the entire operation was organized from Russia (…)”, said Mr. Grala. The Litfond auction house, via its general director, Sergei Bourmistrov, has neither confirmed nor explicitly denied the embezzlement.
“The Litfond auction house works within the framework of the current legislation of the Russian Federation, and we do not accept for sale (…) books with stamps of existing state libraries”, he said. For Mr. Grala, these thefts are neither a surprise nor a coincidence. “The first three blows hit countries that Russians accuse of fighting Russian language and culturehe explains. They understood very well that Rossica (objects linked to Russian culture) are less strictly protected (…), and are more accessible”.
Mr. Grala says to himself “devastated” by the losses “irreversible” Russian books which nevertheless survived two national uprisings and two world wars on Polish soil. ““The librarians of the University of Warsaw, risking their lives during the war, secretly built a double ceiling to hide books, so that they would not disappear or burnrecalls Mr. Grala. And there, we were not able to protect them against this looting”.