Prosecuting the Pittsburgh Rare Book Theft

On stopping insider theft of rare books

I am not so much skeptical as I am uncertain as to how Pittsburgh prosecutors will handle the case of rare book thief Greg Priore and trafficker John Schulman. The police work has been exemplary, but prosecution is another thing altogether. Crimes of this nature are best handled at the federal level, by US Attorneys, because they have at their disposal the laws and sentencing guidelines to treat them appropriately. State’s attorneys, like those prosecuting this case in Pittsburgh, mostly do not.

It’s a problem that factors heavily in my recent book about a major 1980 rare book crime. But to keep you from having to run out and buy my book, let’s instead look at a couple of past Pennsylvania library thieves and the disparate treatment they received depending upon which court sentenced them. (And then you can run out and buy my book.)

Kathleen Wilkerson was a graduate of Bryn Mawr pursuing a Ph.D. when she began working at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Special Collections. Nearly a decade later a book collector recognized Penn’s 1619 copy of a Shakespeare work for sale for $1million in Bauman Rare Books; it didn’t take very long to trace it back to Wilkerson. She had been looting the school’s most valuable books for years, a haul that included a 1491 Dante “Divine Comedy,” a 1542 edition of Chaucer, and a 1776 copy of Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” — all found for sale, along with fifteen other Penn books, at Bauman. More than a hundred other stolen books were found in Wilkerson or her parents’ homes — in addition to those she’d given away to friends, and the sixty others she’d tried to sell.

In order to steal for years without getting caught, Wilkerson took some rather sophisticated steps to cover her tracks. She selected her targets with care, rearranged shelves to mask missing books, and destroyed catalog records. And that was in addition to actually smuggling the things out. These facts would seem to contradict her attorney’s claim that it was mental illness, not greed, that compelled her thefts. But there is a long, absurd tradition of people believing that those who steal rare books are somehow mentally unwell, a falsehood that came into full bloom in the 1990s. (Funny coincidence: in a separate, unrelated story on the same page in American Libraries where Wilkerson’s guilty plea was reported, the magazine noted that William Witherell — another person who had recently been caught stealing rare books — had undergone a psychiatric evaluation before standing trial.) In any event, a credulous state court judge believed this claim about mental illness and sentenced Wilkerson to 7 years of something called psychiatric probation. She was also sentenced to 2 years of regular probation, but that ran concurrently.

Which is to say, she was treated by the state court system exactly as she expected to be treated when she told the Philadelphia Enquirer after her arrest, “I don’t understand what the big fuss is about.”

Contrast this state court decision with that of the Philadelphia federal court in which James Shinn was sentenced while Wilkerson was still working at Penn. Shinn was a man with an enormous appetite for stealing from libraries. Originally from St. Louis, he pretty much lived on the road, travelling widely to steal books and prints that he later cleaned of library markings and sold to bookdealers and collectors. Arrested several times for a variety of book and art related thefts, he was caught for the last time in late 1981 at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. Detained by security, he distracted them and escaped, but police tracked him to his local motel room, where they found his wife and a bunch of stolen books. A later investigation turned up caches of stolen books in several states, and testimony that he had once had a basement filled with the things.

Shinn’s thefts — in terms of scope and damage done to collections — were more serious than Wilkerson’s. But Wilkerson’s theft was more serious in the way that matters most in criminal sentencing: monetary value. Despite that, Shinn’s sentence was far more severe— two consecutive ten-year terms in prison, nearly fifteen years of which he actually served.

This Shinn sentence came at a time before federal punishment was reformed and standardized with sentencing guidelines. But the principle behind it is the same today as it was then: federal criminal sentences for rare book thieves are generally substantial while state courts treat these crimes like overdue library books.

In 1994, curator Daniel Traister, who had worked closely with Wilkerson at Penn’s Special Collections, mused on the subject of insider rare book theft, joking that “the day may come when I wake up wondering where my children’s next tuition payments will come from — and, as I enter the office, inspiration may strike.” Within a couple years of that statement, on the other side of Pennsylvania, Greg Priore, father of four, began to measure the cost of the Ellis School’s tuition against his meager salary and, looking around at his library’s collection, inspiration struck.

Traister’s ultimate conclusion back then was that insider thefts like Wilkerson’s and Priore’s could not be stopped. But I’m not so sure about that. If Greg Priore, who had certainly heard of Kathleen Wilkerson, knew that as soon as he got caught stealing from his library’s collection he would spend fifteen years in prison instead of seven years probation, it would have clarified his thinking on the matter. I’m certain he would have seen the merits of a good old fashioned American public school education for his kids.