Rare Russian Books Stolen From Europe

Rare Russian books worth millions of euros have been stolen from libraries across Eastern Europe, and fakes have replaced the originals. A spate of thefts, including first editions of works by Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol, has left a trail that points to auctions in Russia. The University of Warsaw library only found out last month about the thefts, which are thought to have happened over the past two years. The institution was unaware that its shelves of 19th-century Russian literature were being emptied and replaced by forgeries, which carried the stamps and catalog numbers of the library and could be identified by experts by their size, shape, and color or by the incorrect stamp ink colors.

The story of these stolen works is a reminder of how vital and valuable libraries are to societies. A raid on a library can have devastating consequences, from loss of precious materials to erosion of the public’s trust in institutions of knowledge and culture. The loss of a treasured collection can also harm the reputation of a librarian or a book dealer and lead to lawsuits, bad publicity, and loss of business.

Many books have stories to tell, and some are especially interesting in how they were created or lost. The Library of Congress’s Yudin collection of rare nineteenth-century volumes, for example, offers a window into the history of Russia as it was changing from an autocracy to a democracy. Yudin’s collection includes bindings in yellow calf or goatskin tooled in gold, shiny brown so-called “Russian” leather, and blue-and-white mottled composition book boards with lovely hand-stamped endpaper patterns. The collection includes several books with manuscript ownership inscriptions and simple printed bookplates from earlier owners.

The books are fascinating, but so is the trove of handwritten catalog cards that Yudin left behind with his collection. The Rare and Special Collections Division holds what remains of the original red-silk-covered boxes containing bundles of thin slips of paper, not uniformly cut, that are the catalog cards. The cards include detailed bibliographic information written in several hands and inks. The cards are housed in drawers of a large card file in the European Division stacks.

In the case of rare Russian books, the card catalog will help reunite the books with the original owners’ families. For those who lost relatives in the Holocaust, these books may be the only remaining possessions of their dead loved ones they have ever held. Sebastian Rydell, a curator in the European Division, recently acquired one of these books and has started tracking down its former owner.

The library’s destruction is considered one of the great cultural tragedies of World War II, alongside the infamous firebombing of the cathedral in Rheims. Its loss was a blow to academics, historians, and bibliophiles who still revere the place today.

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