Posted by: bluesyemre | September 3, 2018

How two thieves stole thousands of prints from #UniversityLibraries

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IN THE SUMMER OF 1980, Robert Kindred was a 35-year-old high school dropout with no plans of going to college. Despite that, scattered in the backseat of his newly leased Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham were half a dozen guides to American college and university locations, each representing a region of the United States. He also had a single volume covering the entire country in his briefcase. A former Boy Scout, he liked to be prepared.

No major American crime requires as much travelling as that of stealing rare books from libraries, a fact Kindred knew from experience. Thanks to wealthy Americans, poor Europeans, two hot wars, and one cold one, the fruits of 500 years of printing came to be scattered across the United States in the second half of the 20th century. And almost all of it could be found on the shelves of some college or university library.

Of course, by the late 1970s, the most precious books and manuscripts in American collections had been put behind locked doors, libraries having learned that lesson the hard way. So Kindred, an antique print dealer, was not in the market for big ticket items, such as a Gutenberg Bible or Shakespeare First Folio. He was interested in the low hanging fruit of the rare book field: 19th-century scientific illustrations. In publications like Ibis and Ferns of North America and Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, the greatest natural history artists of the 19th century—including J.G. Keulemans and Joseph Wolf—had done their best work, contributing hand-colored lithographs and engravings of the world’s flora and fauna for the sake of science. Even after more than a century between the pages, the illustrations were as bright and vivid as the day they were created.

Kindred knew these books and journals were nearly impossible to find for sale, and prohibitively expensive even when they could be found. So for the sake of his business he turned to the open shelves of academic libraries. The irony is that the easy access granted him by libraries that summer was heir to the spirit of scientific inquiry in which these magnificent prints were created in the first place.

IN ADDITION TO THE COLLEGE guides, Robert Kindred had a second important reference source in his car: a road atlas. On its largest map, he had circled a series of towns starting just south of Dallas, where he had a storefront. Linked by the Interstate Highway System, the circles went across the south, up the East Coast, and back through the Midwest. It looked like an oblong chain of pearls, clasped in north Texas.

The first circle on that map was College Station, home to Texas A&M University. The Evans Library there housed a world-class collection of 19th-century prints—but not for very much longer. Kindred and his partner Richard Green spent half a day and a handful of razors there, destroying one publication after another for the sake of their illustrations. In one afternoon they destroyed what had taken decades to gather and a century to create. The only thing left behind were the ghostly impressions on the pieces of tissue paper put between pages to preserve the illustrations—and the razors the two men dropped on the floor, dulled from use. The rest went into the hot trunk of the Cadillac, which they then pointed toward Houston, and Rice University.

At Rice their destruction was even worse. That school’s collection of 19th-century scientific illustration was more robust, for one, and the stacks more secluded. From Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London alone they cut out 1,300 prints. But quite beyond their favorites, the Rice collection was so impressive Kindred managed to find dozens of publications he had never seen before. Once he took them, no one at Rice would ever see them again.

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