The U.S. versus Spiegelman: Part III

Is the theft of rare books and manuscripts really that much of a crime?

Mike Selby

Things were not going well for Daniel Spiegelman. In fact, nothing was. His theft of a massive amount of items from Columbia University’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library should have made him a wealthy man. Yet unlike other institutions he stole from in the past, Columbia University would not let it go. Unable to unload his merchandise stateside, Spiegelman was forced to relocate to Europe, only to be promptly arrested. Even his attempt to escape extradition went horribly awry. Not only did he bring all kinds of unwanted law enforcement upon him (he claimed he had funded the Oklahoma City Bombing), but he ended up being extradited anyway.

His new defense strategy was to try and convince the judge that his thefts had not harmed anyone, especially Columbia. His lawyers argued that ‘rare’ was simply a fancy term librarians liked to use; old books are not comparable to works of art which are one of a kind. Since most of the books Spiegelman stole are available in other editions and reprints, the loss to scholarship was nothing but a ruse by Columbia.

The prosecutions first witness was Jean Ashton, the chief librarian of Columbia’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Wearing white gloves, Ashton unrolled a scroll dating from 1262, and held it open beside a photocopy. “Most of the information that is contained in the physical object itself is absent from the photocopy” she told the silent courtroom, before listing a lengthy list of characteristics not found in the photocopy. Not only did this list include the item’s size and color, but also its weight and heft, original annotations, parchment type and texture, quality of glue used, and any luster which remained on the scroll. None of these features, which are crucial to historians, genealogists, and book scholars, can be found in the photocopy.  Ashton strongly suggested that the scroll’s physical properties were at least — and sometimes more —important than its content.

As she moved to her second example (she had brought all kinds of rare items), Spiegelman’s lawyer objected, stating none of the examples were relevant to the case at hand. These items were simply furnished by Columbia for the prosecution; none of these were items Spiegelman stole.

However, each item Ashton brought had indeed been stolen by Spiegelman. The FBI had recovered them from his apartment. The red-faced attorney had no choice but to let the librarian continue. One of the most damning items was the multivolume Blaeu atlas —which was without question a work of art. Yet when Ashton opened each of the oversized books’ covers, all that was left was a ragged hull. Spiegelman had cut out the maps to sell individually. The Blaeu atlas was a world cultural treasure; scholars come from all over the world to study it. Columbia University first acquired it almost 200 years ago. Now it was mutilated beyond recogniztion.

The defense objected again, stating that since the FBI had recovered most of the items stolen, they had made their way back to Columbia University. So there really isn’t any loss to scholarship at all.

“There is a five year loss to scholarship,” Ashton retorted. “The students at Columbia from 1993 to 1998 will not have been to be exposed to them.”

None of this was helping Spiegelman’s case, and he was becoming desperate. As court adjourned for the day, he either attempted suicide, or tried to make it look like he attempted suicide on his way back to the jail. Either way, it was documented as a “feeble” attempt.

In April of 1998, Spiegelman was sentenced to six years, for “callously stealing, mutilating, and destroying rare and unique elements of our common intellectual heritage … he risked stunting, and probably stunted, the growth of human knowledge to the detriment of us all.” This unique ruling became precedent, and is now known as the “U.S. vs Spiegelman.”

As with everything else in this case, this story does not end here.  Paul Kurtz, one of Spiegelman’s defence attorneys turned out to be no attorney at all. Having represented hundreds of clients, Kurtz was arrested and charged with 44 federal counts of making false statements.

And then, things were quiet for a while, until the fall of 2000.  A rate book dealer contacted Ashton, stating someone was in his store trying to sell some of the missing Columbia items. She rushed to the store to identify the items, and could not believe who was trying to sell them.

It was Daniel Spiegelman himself. Having escaped from jail, he was back at it. An incredulous Ashton had him arrested, and two more years were added to his sentence.

Since his release from prison over 10 years ago, Columbia and the rare book world has had no more encounters with this notorious book thief. Everyone hopes it stays that way.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library