Swedish librarians find stolen atlas in New York

Rebecca Martin
Rebecca Martin - [email protected]
Swedish librarians find stolen atlas in New York

One of the books stolen from the Swedish National Library in the beginning of the 2000s has been discovered with a collector in New York. This is the first of the books stolen in the by now infamous book thefts to have been tracked down.


“The discovery was a combination between coincidence and skill, actually,” said head of information at the National Library (Kungliga Biblioteket –KB) Urban Rybrink to The Local.

In 2004 literary Sweden was hit by scandal when it was discovered that a respected specialist at the National Library in Stockholm had been pilfering rare books to a value of at least nine million kronor ($1.4 mllion) from the library’s collections and selling them off at auction houses worldwide for a number of years.

After admitting to the crime while questioned by the police, the man took his own life five days after being released from custody by slitting his wrists and severing a gas lead in his kitchen.

The gas was then ignited by a spark from the fridge’s thermostat, causing an explosion that shook the whole neighbourhood.

At the time the library was not allowed to make the list of stolen titles public due to the ongoing police investigation.

But only a few weeks ago, library specialists looking into another atlas up for sale in New York, discovered a book, seemingly similar to an atlas they knew as stolen, among the books of a New York collector.

“We have been able to verify that it is the right book by help of photos and descriptions sent back and forward between the library and the collector, “ said Rybrink.

The book, an atlas from the 16th century called "Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum, sive Occidentis notitia brevi commentario" which was made by Cornelis van Wytfliet, covers the “new world”; North and South America.

The book was sold for the first time in 2003, before the thefts had been discovered, and has changed hands a number of times since then.

Its value has increased greatly as well, from about 600,000 kronor at the time of the first sale to approximately 1.8 million kronor today.

According to Rybrink, the library hasn’t got the financial means to try to buy it back from the collector who had purchased it in good faith.

Legally they would also have very slim chances of having the book returned to them.

“We simply don’t know if we will get it back. There is always a chance but then that would be dependent on the good will of the collector. We’re in dialogue with him at the moment,” Rybrink said.

Rybrink doesn’t dare hazard a guess as to whether the library will be able to retrieve or replace any of the books stolen from its collections.

“We weren’t allowed to make the list of stolen titles public at the time due to the ongoing police investigation. But now we will, it’s been long enough, “ he said.

The library hopes to find more of its stolen books, but Rybrink thinks that even if they resurface the same way as the stolen atlas did, it is a difficult and more often than not impossible process to get them back.

And all the publications in the collection are important to the library.

“All the books have an immense value to the library and to the scientists and scholars who come from afar and who needs them for their research,” Rybrink told The Local.

The collections at the National Library contain over 15 million books and pamphlets with everything from medieval bibles to the latest IKEA catalogue.

The library is obliged by law to collect anything printed in Sweden. Since 1661 all printing houses must send at least one example of each thing they print to the library.

The dramatic life of the library specialist turned book thief was made into a TV-series called "Bibliotekstjuven" ("Library-thief") in 2011 by Sveriges Television (SVT) with Swedish actor Gustaf Skarsgård, brother of True Blood star Alexander Skarsgård and son of world renowned actor Stellan Skarsgård, in the lead role.


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