The Columbia caper: Curiouser and curiouser

What was Daniel Spiegelman up with the theft of all those books?

Mike Selby

It remains one of the largest and most unique book thefts in modern times. In fact everything about this case was unusual.

It began in the summer of 1994, when a librarian at Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library went to locate a book called MS 29 (a medieval anthology of gospel writings) only to find it missing. A thorough search of the library was conducted, but MS 29 was not located. What was located was the horrifying truth that more than just this one book was missing. Much more.

This should have been impossible. Columbia’s Rare Book Library is part of the university’s Butler Library — which is built like a fortress. The rare books are housed on the building’s sixth floor, surrounded by heavy wired glass, steel piping, fierce looking doors and even fiercer looking librarians. The truly rare books — which are valued in the hundreds of millions — are kept in a secure vault at the back of the closed stacks. No one but a select handful of librarians are allowed in the vault, not even Columbia faculty. At no time should anyone be anywhere near the vault who did not belong there.

But one person had. Daniel Spiegelman — a short and slender Russian immigrant — had been in and out of the vault for months. Posing as a graduate student, he had been frequently using Columbia’s Rare Book Library for his ‘research.’ Unlike most book thieves — ones who grab an item and dash for the exit — Spiegelman was methodically casing the place, looking for a weakness he could exploit. He found one in the library’s book lift, a miniature elevator used to send books up and down the levels of the library. His slight stature allowed Spiegelman to climb up and down the book lift shaft, giving him access to every section of the library — including the vault. Here he appropriated the items he wanted, and simply climbed back down the shaft to the main floor, which was open all night.

After six months of this, Spiegelman had removed a staggering amount of property from Columbia, until the missing MS 29 was discovered. Then Jean Ashton, the chief librarian at the time, had to decide what action to take. Surprisingly, calling the authorities was not her first instinct. Not only would the news reflect badly on the library staff (it had to be an inside job), and on Columbia itself (the fools), but philanthropists tend not to donate their priceless collections of rare books to institutions that lose them.

But these thoughts only went through her head for a brief moment, and Ashton quickly contacted the FBI. Working together they assembled a complete catalogue of the missing items, and faxed it to rare book dealers across the U.S. to be on the lookout for anyone selling items from this list.

The only problem was ,Spiegelman wasn’t in the States. He was crisscrossing all over Europe, selling the stolen items to dealers in Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, and France. He had shed his graduate student persona for that of a British citizen who had recently inherited a large cache of rare items.

This new ruse was working well for Spiegelman (now using the name William Taylor), until he got to Utrecht. Here it began to all fall apart.

The rare book dealer he approached in Utrecht to sell his wares to wasn’t buying anything from him — including his act. He quickly consulted with his business partner, who was not only a medieval manuscript professor from Chicago, but knew everything there was to know about the Columbia thefts.

Spiegelman quickly found himself sitting in a Utrecht jail, awaiting extradition back to the U.S.

No one could have ever predicted what happened next. The Dutch newspapers began reporting that the proceeds from Spiegelman’s crimes had been used to fund the 1995 Oklahoma City Federal Building bombing. If true, Spiegelman would face the death penalty.

There would be no extradition now.

Apparently, the story of the Columbia Library book thefts was just beginning.

(To be continued next week).

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library