Most of the information in this article was found in an article by Travis McDade in the September 2020 edition of the Smithsonian Magazine.
Deep in the “if you know, you know” section, is the word INCUNABLE. To 99.9% of the world the word means nothing, to .1% of the world, it refers to a book, pamphlet or poster printed before the year 1500. (Now you know.) Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around the year 1440, and by 1500 printing presses all over Western Europe had produced over twenty million works. A single Renaissance press could produce about 3,600 printed pages per workday, compared to forty pages by hand printing, and just a few by hand copying. The sixteenth century saw a dramatic uptick in printed material with about two hundred million works being printed, making the earlier works significantly rarer and more valuable. This is why incunabula are often the flagship items in any serious book collection, and why the brazen looting of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh was so shocking.
Andrew Carnegie, one of the wealthiest people to have walked this planet, started life in 1835 as a starving Scottish child, and eventually built the largest privately owned steel and iron empire this country has ever seen. He wrote a dictum for how to live life, known s the Andrew Carnegie Dictum:
- To spend the first third of one’s life getting all the education one can.
- To spend the next third making all the money one can.
- To spend the last third giving it all away for worthwhile causes.
While he may have not had the opportunity to get all the education he could, he did sell his business in 1901, and devoted the rest of his life to giving away his fortune. By the time he died in in 1919, he had given away over $350MM which is approximately $80 Billion dollars after inflation adjustments. He particularly liked funding libraries, undoubtedly to help others with the education they needed in the first third of their lives, and he established over 3,000 libraries, with the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh being one of the most impressive. Carnegie lived in Allegany/Pittsburgh for many years and made use of the local library as a struggling young man, so he generously funded the library which had eight branches all over the city at the time of his death.
The crown jewel of the Carnegie Library is the Oliver Room, a small area that contains all of the libraries most valuable possessions, such as incunabula, atlases from the 1600’s, first editions or signed copies of famous books, photogravure “plates” which are colored illustrations that would be inserted into already printed books hundreds of years ago. Many of its prized items were donated directly by Andrew Carnegie, who has a soft spot for his hometown The value of the collection located in the Oliver Room was in the tens of millions, a low estimate because many of its holdings are hard to price due to their rarity and obscurity. The value today is much lower by at least $8MM, but the true number may never be known. How did the burglars pull off this brazen theft?
The Oliver Room was designed by in 1992 Greg Priore, the manager of the room, using what’s know as “defense in depth,” a series of small systems set up to prevent theft, as opposed to one simple alarm system which can at times be circumvented. There is only a single point of entry, and there were very few keyholders. Whenever anyone entered, employee, patron, or visitor, Priore needed to be notified. There were only a few hours a day that the room was accessible, and all guest had leave personal items like jackets, bags, or purses in a locker outside the room. There was 24 hour video surveillance of the room. Lastly, Greg Priore himself presided over the room from a desk with sightlines to almost the entire collection. No books were ever allowed out of the room, and whenever a book was returned, Greg would inspect it carefully for damage or anything missing.
When the Oliver Room was formed in 1992 in honor of William R. Oliver a longtime supporter of the library, a full inventory was done by a team consisting of a preservations specialist and two rare book experts. They closed off the windows so that the sunlight shouldn’t damage the books, they switch from wood shelving which can leach acid into the books to metal shelving, and most importantly they inventoried every item in the collection, a painstaking process that took months. In 2016, the library administrators decided to audit the collection, and hired the Pall Mall Art Advisors to do the appraisal.
Two auditors showed up bright and early on April 3, 2017, and within hours chaos ensued. As they started going down the list of most valuable items, they could not find almost a single item intact. Many items were outright missing, and still others horrifyingly had all their pages or illustrations cut out and were simply an empty shell.
Perhaps the most valuable item in the library was Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, commonly known as the Blaeu Atlas. The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s version, printed in 1644, originally comprised three volumes containing 276 hand-colored lithographs that mapped the known world in the age of European exploration. All 276 maps were missing. The Smithsonian Magazine article only listed a fraction of the items stolen by the thief, and this is a sampling of that list:
“He took the oldest book in the collection, a collection of sermons printed in 1473, (incunable!) and also the most recognizable book, a first edition of Isaac Newton’s 98. He stole a first edition of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith, a letter written by William Jennings Bryan and a rare copy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1898 memoir, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897. He stole a first edition of a book written by the nation’s second president, John Adams, as well as a book signed by the third, Thomas Jefferson. He stole the first English edition of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, printed in London in 1620, and the first edition of George Eliot’s Silas Marner, printed in the same city 241 years later. From John James Audubon’s 1851-54 Quadrupeds of North America, he stole 108 of the 155 hand-colored lithographs.
The appraisers discovered that many of the invaluable books with illustrations or maps had been ransacked. John Ogilby’s America—one of the greatest illustrated English works about the New World, printed in London in 1671—had contained 51 plates and maps. They were gone. A copy of Ptolemy’s groundbreaking La Geographia, printed in 1548, had survived intact for over 400 years, but now all of its maps were missing. Of an 18-volume set of Giovanni Piranesi’s extremely rare etchings, printed between 1748 and 1807, the assessors noted dryly, “The only part of this asset located during on-site inspection was its bindings. The contents have evidently been removed from the bindings and the appraiser is taking the extraordinary assumption that they have been removed from the premises.” The replacement value for the Piranesis alone was $600,000.”
The auditors reported their findings to the library administrators were summoned to emergency meetings. Who had carried out this theft and how had they done it? The security seemed quite tight?
When you hire a watchman to keep the foxes out of the chicken coop, but chickens keep going missing, you’re not going to have a favorable eye toward the watchman. Very early on, the majority of the suspicion was reserved for Greg Priore, especially because he had strenuously objected to the audit being performed which had been assumed to be due to his increasing dislike of anything going on in “his room,” but clearly had other reasons at this point.
As the investigation continued, it was discovered that Greg, the manager of the Oliver Room had been sneaking out books, documents, drawings, and other valuable print material for over twenty years! The police was also able to find the art dealer who was fencing the stolen artwork for him. The total damage was at least $8MM but many of the items are irreplaceable so its hard to put a price tag on the damage.
Amazingly, it seems that Greg did not get rich from his life of crime. He and his wife, who worked as a children’s librarian (I always knew there was something sinister about those librarians! You can’t live in total quiet for so long without snapping somewhere!), lived in a modest apartment crowded with books. They didn’t go on opulent vacations or drive luxury vehicles. They did have four children in private school, but we’re quite aware of what that looks like in the Jewish community and most of us don’t turn to cultural heritage thievery to pay our tuition bills! But we have records of him begging his landlord not to evict when he was four months late on his rent, or written requests for deductions in tuition that owed for some of his children’s school, indicating that his life of crime didn’t enrich him in any meaningful way.
When confronted by the police, both Greg and John Shulman, the man who sold off all the stolen items, pled guilty. The sentencing guidelines were surprisingly light, and a good part of the courtroom drama was the streams of people begging the judge to give them harsher sentences so as to deter future cultural heritage thieves, but in the end Greg got three years of house arrest and twelve years of probation and Shulman got four years of house arrest and twelve years of probation. Crime didn’t pay much for Greg, but it didn’t hurt him that much either!
The truth is that the most guilty party in this story might just be the Carnegie Library. This is not a typical blame-the-victim routine, but rather a recognition that if you have a valuable library worth tens of millions of dollars and containing irreplaceable items, you can’t be doing inventory audits once every twenty five years! Whatever you don’t watch will slip away from you.
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 29B) says that he who wishes to lose money should hire workers and not oversee them. This is not a license for workers whose bosses don’t oversee them to steal, but rather a fact about the human condition that when anything is not being watched, losses will occur.
We all have a treasure that is irreplaceable, and that is ourselves. We have so much value to bring to the world, so much good that we can do, so much greatness that we can be, but it will be lost if we don’t take stock, if we don’t audit ourselves. Ideally, we should be auditing ourselves on a daily basis, as the Path of the Just encourages us to take daily inventory of our actions the same way any merchant takes stock of his sales, inventory, cash register totals etc, every single day.
But there is also the high holidays which is more of an annual audit. It’s a time for us to reflect on a large chunk of time, the whole previous year, and look to see what trends formed, were there any significant losses that accrued over time? You might not notice a single illustration stolen from a book containing 272 illustrations, but if one was taken each day, you should notice at the end of the year that there has been some moral depletion in that area!
It is also time for us to take stock of the successes and accomplishments that we had over the previous years. Just like anything that is not watched will incur losses, so too, gains that are not appreciated will melt away. So it is an appropriate time for us to celebrate the successes we’ve had as well.
The audited life is the successful life. We are fortunate to be part of a nation that has a rigorous auditing set into our calendars every fall. Let’s get auditing, and let’s get successful!
Parsha Dvar Torah
This week’s parshios, Nitzavim and Vayelech, contain the last discourse that Moshe gave the Jewish people on the day he died. At the end of Parshas Nitzavim Moshe tells the Jewish people the following, “I invoke as witnesses against you this day, heaven and earth: Life and death have I placed before you, blessing and curse. choose life in order that you live, you and your descendants, to love Ha-shem, your G-d, to obey Him and to cling to Him; for He is your life and the length of your days, to live on the soil that G-d swore to your forefathers- to Avrohom, to Yitzchok, and to Yaakov- to give them.” (Duet. 30:19-20)
While this is a very powerful statement designed to remind Jews that a spiritual life and a relationship with G-d is imperative for life, there seems to be some redundancy in Moshe’s statement, “For He is your life and the length of your day.” Isn’t your life the same thing as the length of your days?
Rav Simcha Bunim Bonhart of Peshischa, (1765–1827), one of the leaders of Hasidic Judaism in Poland, gives the following answer in his work, Kol Simchah. When we look at the world we usually see two types of people. There are those that take great pains to stay in top form and prime health. They don’t smoke, drink, or overindulge in food. They exercise regularly, floss every night and ensure that they get enough sleep. They are usually blessed with “length of days” as a result of all the pain and effort they invested in their lifestyle. Others, however, follow the maxim, “Live Hard, Die Fast, and Leave a Good Looking Corpse!” They smoke, drink, eat whatever they want, and stay up to all hours of the night partying (yeah, just like me, sitting at 1:37 AM writing this email to the soft sound of elevator music!!!). Many would say that those folk live “the life,” but usually they don’t get to experience the length of days. (We all know that the better something tastes, the less healthy it probably is!)
But here Moshe is telling the Jewish people that the spiritual life, the one imbued with Torah and a relationship with G-d, is not like that. Within it, one will find both “the life,” an exciting dynamic life, and “length of days.” Torah is what gives us the ability to Live Hard, Die Late and Leave a Good Looking Legacy!
This Parsha begins the description of the last day of Moshe’s life. Moshe called together the entire Jewish nation, from the lowliest water carrier to the highest elder. He brought them together for a renewal of the covenant that they accepted at Sinai. But this covenant contained one key difference. It included an acceptance of liability not only for an individual’s own action, but also for the deeds of all other members of the Jewish nation. We don’t regard other Jews as separate entities, loosely held together by similar experiences, a common language, or ethnic commonality; rather we are all tiny parts of one national soul.
If your left hand was being bitten by a rabid dog, your right hand wouldn’t stand by, saying, “Will you look at that! No wonder must people are right-handed, left hands have such bad luck!” Your right hand would spring to action, trying to wrench the Doberman off the other hand! This is because both hands are part of one being. Likewise, if a Jew sees another Jew falling into the lure of sin, he can’t stand by idly and do nothing, he must attempt to help him. (However, if one assesses that his attempt to help the person will have a negative result, he is commanded to desist from action.) Based on this covenant, being a good guy just isn’t enough, we need to spread our goodness to others in order to be the Ultimate Jew!
Here, the Torah adds another warning against idolatry. (Idolatry is the most oft-repeated prohibition in the Torah. Serving idols involves denying the Source of everything, including yourself. There can be nothing worse than this, as it causes all your deeds to be focused in the wrong direction, thus making you a complete failure!) We are told about how we will be exiled from our land if we continuously serve idols. G-d always treats us the way we treat Him. If we deny Him as our source, He says, “You don’t recognize me as your protector, your source? No problem, I will remove My protection from you.” Without G-d’s protection, it is clear that we can’t survive (please see Exhibit A, the Land of Israel). We will immediately be driven from our land.
Ha-shem continues by promising us that when we do recognize Him and return to Him, He will have mercy on us, and bring us back from all the exiles to which we have been dispersed. He will rejoice with us the way He rejoiced with out forefathers.
Moshe then tells the Jews to recognize that the Torah he presented to them is not found on a distant island or on a far away star, to be reached only by a perilous journey. “Rather, the matter is very near to you, in your mouth and your heart– to perform it.” (Deut. 30:14) Here, we see the crucial three things we need to be able to serve G-d properly – mouth, heart, and body. We need to want the right goals (heart), which will cause us to verbalize our desires (mouth), and then our bodies will perform that which we wanted and verbalized.
The Parsha concludes with Moshe calling the heavens and earth as witnesses to his rejoinder that the Jews pick life, that they choose good over bad, righteousness over evil. He calls the heavens and earth as witnesses because they are eternal, and will always be there to testify whether we are keeping our part of the bargain and choosing right over wrong. Additionally, there is lesson to be learned from them. Even thought they get no reward or punishment, theheaven and earth fulfill G-d’s will, shining brightly every day, bearing fruit and produce, exactly as G-d wills them to. We, who do get reward and punishment, how much more should we do exactly as G-d tells us.
Next is my favorite verse in the entire Torah. “I have placed life and death before you, blessing and curse, and you shall choose life, so that you will live, you and your offspring.” (Deut. 30:19) So many religions encourage their followers to do the right thing to earn great reward in the next world. In Judaism, while we do believe there will be a great World to Come, we don’t use that as our selling point. Moshe tells the people, “Choose Life! So that you will live, you and your children!” He tells us to keep the Torah because that will give us the most incredible life possible! I’m a social worker, and I see that the Torah way of life averts so many of the ailments of modern society. It is no wonder that Jews following a Torah lifestyle have drastically lower rates of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and violent crime compared to mainstream society. So, please remember to choose the Torah life, not for the best next world (although you’ll get it), but for the best of this world!
Quote of the Week: Never try to catch two frogs with one hand. – Peter Gribenes
Random Fact of the Week: In England, the Speaker of the House is not allowed to speak.
Funny Line of the Week: All my life I thought air was free, until I bought a bag of chips.
Have a Dynamite Shabbos,
R’ Leiby Burnham