Bibliomania gone wrong
ENDPAPER BY PRADEEP SEBASTIAN
How the rare books thief John Gilkey got away with books worth $200,000 and was finally caught.
ON March 14, 2001, a man named John Gilkey called the Brick Row Book Shop, a well known antiquarian bookstore in San Francisco and said, “I’m looking for a gift. Something in the 2000 to 3000 dollar range”. The bookstore suggested a special two volume set of The Mayor of Casterbridge, a first edition priced at $2500. Gilkey then read his credit card number to the bookstore clerk and said he would pick up the book in the afternoon. The bookstore had it wrapped and kept ready for the book to be picked up. Later in the day a man rushed in, said he was in a hurry, and left with the book.
For several years between 2001 and 2003, this was typically how the rare book thief Gilkey operated: using stolen credit card numbers he would place the order over telephone and tell the bookstore that he was too busy to come himself and would be sending someone to pick up the book on his behalf. He would stroll into the bookshop a few hours later and ask for the book. Only weeks later would the bookseller realise the charge was fraudulent.
Among the many first or rare editions he stole include: Catch 22 ($3,500), Lord Jim ($3,000) Samuel Beckett’s No’s Knife ($850) Kerouac’s On the Road ($4,500) and first editions of Winnie-the-Pooh . In all, perhaps books worth $200,000.
In her absorbing new book, The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, Allison Hoover Bartlett tells the story of not just Gilkey and his rare book theft escapades, but of his nemesis, the rare book dealer-turned-‘ bibliodick’ Ken Sanders, and how he stalked and captured this century’s most relentless and successful book thief.
Her book is also a seductive look at the obsessive world of rare books, collectors and dealers. What set John Gilkey apart from most book thieves is that he did not steal for profit but to collect. He had come under the spell of first editions and fine books, and wanted to own them.
He didn’t have the means to buy them, so he helped himself to these books because he felt entitled to them. He didn’t think of it as stealing — he is quoted as saying that taking a book from a library would be stealing.
Like that other notorious biblioklept, Stephen Blumberg, Gilkey stole for the love of books. Another stunning instance of bibliomania gone wrong. Bartlett, who interviewed Gilkey several times, recounts that he visualised himself as a Sherlock Holmes ‘with a smoking jacket and an old library. I’d have a big antique globe and read next to it.’
While researching and writing about this world of literary obsession, the author wondered what her own position was as a bibliophile: was she a bibliomaniac? And if she was, how far would she go to own a book she coveted?
Bartlett’s honest self-scrutiny all through the book bonds her with the reader, who will have to ask similar questions: what kind of bibliophile am I? Even rare book dealers confess to moments of temptation when they ache to hold a book that they don’t possess. But they fight the impulse and the moment passes.
Allison Bartlett notes that, for many collectors, the goal is “to stumble upon a book whose scarcity or beauty or history or provenance is even more seductive than the story printed between its covers.” How did he get access to stolen credit card numbers? From receipts left by customers at the famous Saks department store he worked in on and off for several years. Once he had collected several credit card numbers, he would begin his round of telephone calls.
Ken Sanders, who owns a fine rare book store in Salt Lake City, had been appointed as head of security for the ABAA (Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America), and it was while serving his term here that he began investigating a series of book thefts by fraudulent credit card numbers.
He had requested all ABAA-affiliated bookstores in the country to report book thefts, and kept them updated with everything he could gather about this book thief.
On a Tuesday in January 2003 John Gilkey, armed with a new set of card numbers, dialed the number of Ken Lopez Bookseller, one of the most high end dealers in modern first editions, and asked for a book in the range of $5,000 to $7,000.
Lopez suggested The Grapes of Wrath. The caller wondered if he should also purchase a clamshell box to keep the book in. Immediately, Lopez was reminded of another man who had called six months earlier asking if he should get a clamshell for a first edition of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Lopez asked Gilkey to call back, and then alerted Ken Sanders. When the thief called back next, the trap had been set. Ken Lopez accepted the card number and the sale went through. However, Gilkey said he would like the book delivered to his hotel, and wouldn’t be picking it up himself.
Lopez now played a joke - one that would fool the man who had been fooling all of them: he sent a worthless facsimile edition of the book. How Gilkey is caught and the books recovered I’ll leave to you to learn from The Man Who Loved Books Too Much, a compelling true tale of dark bibliomania whose Hitchcockian title and book cover I particularly relished.
“We were all tenacious hunters,” Bartlett concludes. “Gilkey for books, Sanders for thieves, and me for both their stories.” In the end, what her book is really about she notes is “people’s intimate and complex and sometimes dangerous relationship to books.”
(Courtesy: The Literary Review)
Lastupdate on : Fri, 5 Feb 2010 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Fri, 5 Feb 2010 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Sat, 6 Feb 2010 00:00:00 IST
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