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Cracking the case: how detectives catch up with book and art thieves

By Michael W. Ziegler author of article
Source: Interloc News, June 1997

The following accounts are of an unusual nature, but are nonetheless all true. As a sworn officer with twenty years of experience in the police department of Philadelphia, I have had the opportunity to serve as an advisor to Central Division Command. Working in this capacity, I've encountered various crimes involving the theft of books, art, and antique items stolen from the business community of Center City, PA.

I became a member of the antiquarian book trade in 1989, partly as a direct result of the relationships formed during my career as a police officer in the district where most of the book trade in this city is located.

To begin with, I am in somewhat of an unusual position. My stock and trade has always been book acquisition and producing works of art. I was able to apply this knowledge in the field of crime detection by seizing the opportunities to investigate matters that ordinarily patrol officers have no time to pursue.

In those days, I worked directly for the Captain, serving under four different commanders. The essential duties of my office involved overseeing security matters among corporate offices in the Center City area and providing regular public speaking engagements. But my true passion was to seek out the criminal who would ordinarily escape the notice of regular patrol. These are the "White Collar" criminals engaged in Grand Larceny—often highly educated members of aristocratic families—who steal valuable items from fellow associates in the book fraternity. I determined I would seek out these eases and relay my experiences to enlighten other dealers in other cities so they might formulate preventative methods in an effort to reduce such crimes.

It's Elementary, My Dear Watson

No doubt, many will remember an incident that occurred several years ago regarding the robbery and subsequent theft at the Rodin Museum. Rodin's "Man With A Broken Nose" was stolen at gunpoint and a large investigation followed in an effort to recover the item. As it turned out, the statue was eventually discovered and returned undamaged. But what is generally not known is how the item was found.

In fact, the matter was resolved due to an officer's observations of recorded facts and theory that equals any story written by Conan Doyle about his famous sleuth. Although the detectives had the perpetrator in custody, the defendant refused to disclose the statue's location because recovery would link him directly with the incident. It turns out an officer, not directly involved with the case, asked the Captain of Detectives a few key questions about the events known prior to the perpetrator's arrest. By piecing together the facts, he was able to deduce the whereabouts of the statue, even pinpointing the exact location within the house where it would be recovered.

Here's how he did it. First, the officer asked where the Captain's men were searching. The Captain responded, "At his (the Defendant's) home in West Philadelphia. The house has been searched and they are now digging holes on the property in the belief that he buried it (the statue) there." The officer then asked if the defendant had at one time attempted to sell the statue to a merchant in the 1800 block of Chestnut St. earlier that week, The Captain responded "Yes." The officer then asked if the defendant had visited his mother, who happened to live in town, during that week. The Captain confirmed that this also was true.

The officer then created a scenario of the defendant and his probable mental attitude at the time of the attempted sale. He stated that if he were the defendant, and in possession of such a highly publicized stolen object, he would not want to be seen with the item in public for very long. The officer stated that a man in that state of mind would probably seek to hide the object in a location closer in proximity to the area of the attempted sale. Since the defendant's mother lived near that location, the officer stated that in all probability the object was most likely hidden in the mother's house, and she was not aware of its presence. He further surmised that if he were the criminal, he would hide the object in the basement, where it was unlikely that an elderly woman would often venture. And since the house was old, it would probably have a coal bin. He surmised that the statue (black in color) would probably be found there!

The Captain immediately phoned the on-scene Detectives in West Philadelphia and advised them to obtain a warrant to search the premises of the defendant's mother. The search revealed the statue hidden in the basement coal bin, not a bit worse for wear! The publicity and credit went to the entire staff of Central Detectives, but the actual person responsible for the recovery received no acknowledgment. The day following the publication of the recovery, the officer who cracked the ease poked his head in the Captain's office doorway and said laughingly, "Are there any other major eases you would like me to solve?"

Forming A Crime Prevention Network

One of the major elements in any investigation is the communication of facts. Another is the importance of networking among fellow dealers and notifying them immediately about missing or stolen stock. Locally the Chamber of Commerce has a Brain Trust within the organization consisting of heads of security in large corporate concerns who meet regularly to trade information on the latest scam artists, cons, and patterns to theft that may be occurring. These meetings take place only once per month, in company with police officials and any other guest agency.

In a similar vein, book dealers in the area are in consistent communication with each other. Dealer marks on particularly valuable books are known to each and every antiquarian merchant, as well as to the specialists who work in the local auction houses. If items that may be presented for sale appear to be suspicious as to origin, or if the seller seems to lack intimate knowledge of the item, the dealer can quickly call the marked dealer and confirm if indeed the object was recently stolen. Upon confirmation the dealer then notifies the police and the suspect is delayed for as long as possible. We've made numerous arrests as a result!

Even Professionals Make Mistakes

One such incident involved a theft of Charles Dickens' personal copy of "A Tale of Two Cities," and first editions of Thomas Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia," and Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." These items were stolen in the burglary of a New York Antiquarian Dealership; the total value of the items was estimated at $50,000. The thief was a famous bibliophile and kleptomaniac with a good education—articulate, poised and well-dressed—similar to "John Clay" in the Holmesian story "The Redheaded League."

Shortly after the burglary, the defendant traveled to Philadelphia and presented the rare books to a Rittenhouse Square dealership in the hopes of a quick disposal for cash. Upon inspection, the Rittenhouse dealer noticed marks belonging to a local dealership. (The thief was not aware that the New York dealership where he had committed the burglary also had offices in Philadelphia.) The proprietor contacted the dealer who confirmed that the items were stolen from New York. He then contacted me by phone at my book business number and informed me of the situation. Within twenty minutes I had the person in custody.

After the owner verified his stolen property, the thief was charged with "Receiving Stolen Property," the only charge that the Philadelphia police could give because the burglary occurred in New York. I then contacted the New York Police about the probability of more stolen objects being recovered at his residence. As it turns out, the thief later confessed to police that he had amassed stolen books and art exceeding a net worth of over a million dollars in his New York apartment.

It Pays to Read Detective Fiction

In a similar case, a male from a prominent Quaker family was involved in the theft of rare religious books. The young man was employed as a book clerk in a Center City store and had recently run short of cash needed to support his recreational drug habit. So he took it upon himself to fence stolen rare religious books to the local auction. The auction specialist contacted police because he believed the items may have been stolen; our investigation indicated that this was true. The next step was to bring in the defendant. I asked the auction specialist if it was likely that the male would be present at the sale. As luck would have it, he walked in precisely after the auctioneer announced that the items were withdrawn. He was then apprehended and subsequently charged.

By the way, this young man worked for a firm that specialized in Detective fiction! You would have thought he might have read a few of the works in the store in order to be better acquainted with crime!

Suspicion and Intuition

Another incident involved a man who was bringing various bronze statuary to a local dealer each week under the premise that he was selling off the collection. The dealer became suspicious and contacted me. I walked to each and every Antique dealer within the area and discovered that some of these items were missing from the local stores. I also confirmed that the man had been seen in these stores prior to the thefts.

Noting his sale pattern, I concluded that it was highly probable that he would return as two items were still reported as missing. The problem was I had no means of waiting for his arrival. So I instructed the dealer to call the minute he came by, and informed members of the Captain's team to expect this man to be in the neighborhood upon opening hours the next day. (By this time, I had been following his trail for almost two weeks!)

The next day at opening the man was apprehended at the store in possession of stolen merchandise which he had taken from a store around the corner! I was then contacted by the Burglary team that I had set up to watch the store to tie him to all the thefts! It turns out the thief was a relative of a famous general in the US Army that had its roots back to the Revolutionary War. Once again, drugs were the major driving force! I brought the well-educated and articulate young man into the district to be introduced to the supervisory staff due to laying off a bet that I would have the guy in custody within 48 hours. Needless to say, I collected the bet.

Recovery is the Goal

In this incident, photographs were the key to object identification. Each merchant had specific items, valued above $5,000, individually photographed for records. Dealers often find it frustrating to relay the importance of value to police in a large metropolitan city. But police are more apt to recognize the importance of such theft if dealers have the necessary information available at the time of the investigator's arrival. Dealers are often upset at the court system or feel that the police just don't care enough about "Recovering Stolen Property" arrests to investigate book thefts seriously—after all, the charges presented are basically misdemeanor crimes, and the defendant will most likely be back on the street within a few hours of processing. This is true to some extent, but recovery of the items is the main goal!

Also from a police standpoint, you have to remember that these are criminals who would not ordinarily be caught! Once we identify a thief in this capacity, his photograph and any information about his activity are disseminated to other agencies, dealers, police, etc. So I strongly advise all dealers to consider this point. Record keeping is a major force in continued apprehension, and often repeat offenders are tied in to multiple incidents as a result.

Good Records Help Track Theft Patterns

In one such case three males were apprehended and charged for committing burglaries and thefts at similar locations. Approximately 8 months later, a crime wave was suddenly upon us. I noticed that the addresses were similar to a pattern of burglaries and thefts that had occurred previously with the same objects being stolen. A computer check of major crime offenses in the previous year matched the current pattern. I then contacted the investigators who at the time did not know of the prior history of these three thieves.

Eventually one of them was caught and released on bail. I passed the old information to the detectives and they brought him back in for questioning. The accomplices were rounded up, based once again on the prior theft pattern, and all three confessed to one hundred and fifty two burglaries! The difference now is that they won't be getting out of jail for quite a while.

I recommend dealers file any and all information about missing and stolen items, because in reality, a criminal does indeed establish a pattern which he may reattempt months, or even years later. The reason for this is if a criminal finds that he is able to make money in a particular area, he will continue to return based on previous success. It is hard for a criminal to get acquainted with an unfamiliar environment.

Value guides are generally unknown to police, but if this information is shown to detectives they will be better appraised of the objects in question. Some detectives even take the extra measure of finding out the value or obtaining a consultant, such as myself, whenever they come across a potentially valuable item during a raid. Objects are also returned to the rightful owners more rapidly to dealers who keep accurate records. Fraudulent reports have also been detected due to technological advances for police work. In all, crime in our district was reduced statistically by over 20%, and is in reality more like 30%.

Automating the Recovery Process

Notation should be made of any and all thefts, such as the file on Interloc's Missing/Stolen Book web page. It would also be of practical use to establish a network of specialists, whom fellow dealers and police can contact in the advent of the recovery of property, including language arts such as Latin manuscripts, and important texts written in other dialects. Scanned images of photographed objects are of particular value, as well as an on4ine reference library of works for the identification of forged items. This information could all be stored on file at police headquarters and called up by in-house computer equipment, with information supplied by dealers for contact by phone, e-mail or the Internet. All could be coordinated by a contact person within the police department who could update files periodically.

As we look toward the 21st century, police will have greater enhanced on4ine, on location contact with information even at the patrol car level. In fact, this is already being done! Recently, computer detection systems for stolen autos (Lojack) and individual computers inside vehicles for checking individuals and vehicles for criminal wants are a reality. By networking other data, with proper input, the investigator will be able to call up all information regarding a theft and not leave the office or vehicle.

I hope you can benefit from these suggestions.

You may contact Michael Ziegler, of Fountainhead Books at 6347 Cottage St., Philadelphia, PA 19135.3220, or by telephone at (215) 331-8547 +