A mystery of rare artifacts goes missing and some academics search for the thief through a series of adventures and intrigue. Sounds like an episode out of an Indiana Jones movie. However, such adventures do occur in real life.
You may have seen the 2014 movie, The Monuments Men starring George Clooney and other all-star actors which was loosely based on Robert Edsel’s novel. Of course, when Hollywood gets a hold of a story, they must drop in romance and extra drama to appease audiences. In truth, the team in the movie worked more behind the scenes to secure the art and rare books for the world and not as depicted on the movie screen.
Although there is a plethora of stories where Americans are called upon to ‘save the day’ in cinema and elsewhere most crime-fighting comes from within. In 2006, in the Trier, Germany library, a man was seen cutting a valuable map of Alsace from a 400-year-old book. He boldly took the map with him as he hurried out of the building once librarians approached him. The library director Gunther Franz reported the theft and alerted other German libraries of Norbert Schild’s crime. In his emails. Franz dubbed Schild, the Buchermarder, or the ‘book marten’ and the name stuck.
The next stop on the hunt was Oldenburg, Germany, nearly 300 miles away, where Klaus-Peter Muller and Corinna Roeder recognized their regular customer in Franz’s email alert. Searching through materials Schild viewed in his fall 2005 visit, they discovered many illustrations missing including early drawings of southeast Asia and the Hudson Bay. Their report to police valued the damages between $44,000 and $48,800. Roeder and Muller drove 300 miles checking auction houses for maps that matched their missing ones. They eventually found four in Holland that were a match.
During Schild’s ravaging of priceless artifacts from Germany’s prestigious libraries, he visited at least 15 more all over the country. It was estimated that he could have earned more than $100,000 in a single year from his alleged thefts. In 2005, the University Library in Munich claimed to have 50 pages missing from books of historical maps Schild had examined.
Several traps were set up for Schild at libraries in Darmstadt and other places, but he remained elusive for 13 more years. By time he was arrested at age 65, his book thief days dated back over 30 years. His trial took place in 2019. The judge sentenced Schild to one year and eight months in jail. I could find no further updates about him other than his sentence was deferred due to health issues. Story adapted from IFCPP – How German Librarians Finally Caught an Elusive Book Thief and How German Librarians Finally Caught an Elusive Book Thief – Atlas Obscura
There is an American equivalent to the Schild heists. E. Forbes Smiley, III robbed six US libraries from Boston to Chicago and New York. At one point he even stole from a London library as well. He was arrested at Yale in 2005. At his trial in 2007, he was ordered to repay $2.3 million in restitution and serve 3 ½ years in prison. He admitted to stealing a total of 97 maps. His exploits are captured in the novel, The Map Thief by Michael Blanding in 2014. (Not to be confused with the 2007 German youth novel, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, later made into a 2013 movie.)
If you are looking for a little international intrigue you may want to read the original articles about Schild or pick up Blanding’s book on Smiley. You may feel a little like Indiana Jones when you are done.