As It Happens

Charges laid in $8M heist of rare books from a Pittsburgh library

An antique bookseller and a library archivist have been charged with theft, conspiracy, forgery and receiving stolen property in connection with hundreds of missing books.

London bookseller says he unwittingly bought $900K copy of Isaac Newton's Principia from alleged book thief

In this June 9, 1999 photo, Greg Priore, an archivist at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, examines books. Priore was charged on July 20 with stealing millions of dollars' worth of rare books, illustrations, maps and photographs. (Sammy Dallal/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

When London bookseller Pom Harrington bought a rare edition of Issac Newton's Principia from a Pittsburgh dealer, he assumed everything was on the up-and-up.

Then he learned the copy of Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica — valued at $900,000 US — was one of hundreds of items allegedly stolen from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh as part of what police say was a 20-year, $8-million heist.

 "To be honest, I still don't really believe it," Harrington, who runs the Peter Harrington rare bookshop in London, told As It Happens guest host Laura Lynch. "It really is a complete shock."

​John Schulman, 54, the antique bookseller who sold Harrington the book, and Gregory Priore, 61, an archivist at Carnegie Library, have been charged with theft, conspiracy, forgery and receiving stolen property in connection with hundreds of missing books, photographs, illustrations and maps. 

Harrington said he's had a long and fruitful business relationship with Schulman, who he described as a trusted and well-known seller.

Caliban Book Shop co-owner John Schulman leaves after his court arraignment on July 20 in Pittsburgh. (Darrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

"He's been trading books for many years. We've been going to American books shows and buying books from him, as we all do," Harrington said.

"You know, he's a very good book dealer."

Lawyers for Schulman and Priore did not return messages from the Associated Press seeking comment.

Robert G. Del Greco Jr., who represents Schulman,  told the Washington Post in an emailed statement: "The complaint sets forth serious allegations, and we are treating them as such." 

A library-to-bookstore pipeline 

Police allege Priore spent years snatching valuable items from the library and dropping them off down the street at Schulman's Caliban Book Store, one block away. 

The alleged scheme started unraveling last year when appraisers began a routine audit commissioned by the library and discovered that items were missing or damaged since the last audit in 1991.

Researchers found more than 300 items damaged or missing, a loss estimated at $8 million US.

Priore was led away in handcuffs after his arraignment in Pittsburgh last week. (Darrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

The library locked down the room, and appraisers quickly began finding missing items for sale online, as well as items that had been sold or advertised by Caliban Book Store.

In June 2017, library officials contacted authorities and fired Priore.

In a statement, library officials said they were "deeply disappointed that at the centre of this case are two people who had close, long-standing relationships with the library."

Retrieving the stolen items 

Detectives say efforts to recover the items have netted books, plates and maps estimated at a value of $1.1 million US. 

Some were found during a search last year of Schulman's book warehouse, detectives said.

By the time Harrington learned the copy of Principia was allegedly ill-gotten, he'd already sold to a third party.

"Fortunately, the book was not far away," he said.

"We obviously got the book back from the collector and refunded them, and we managed to repatriate the book back to the library."

A man reads a sign on the front door of the Caliban Book Shop in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh on Friday. Police allege the shop was a repository for stolen books. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

Ellen Dunlap, president of the American Antiquarian Society, said institutions, booksellers and collectors likely are going through their records to determine whether they bought or resold anything from Caliban Book Store.

"I can assure you if anybody bought anything from Caliban, they're seeing these headlines and saying, 'Uh oh, I'm looking at my books right now,"' Dunlap said.

'Things will go wrong'

That said, Harrington said theft in the rare book world is extremely uncommon. 

Any time a book is flagged as stolen, it's recorded in a database run by the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

"It's almost impossible to sell stolen books once they're known to be stolen, so it's not actually a huge problem, fortunately," he said.

"But every now and again, things will go wrong."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview with Pom Harrington produced by Ashley Mak. 

  • Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the copy of Principia was worth $90,000 US. In fact, it is worth $900,000 US.


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