More than 30,000 books, including 1,000 rare and priceless items, are believed to have been stolen from the French national library in Paris.
So chaotic are the library's cataloguing and security systems it is impossible to know when books were stolen. Some may have been "lost" in an institution that houses 35 million objects. But a year-long investigation by the president of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) found the library had been systematically pillaged over many years.
A former senior curator of the library will appear before an investigating magistrate today accused of stealing at least 100 rare old books and manuscripts. Michel Garel, an internationally known expert on Hebrew texts, initially admitted stealing a 13th-century French copy of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). The document - known only as "Manu-script 52" - was sold to a British collector for €80,000 (£52,000) five years ago. It was recognised as belonging to the French national collection when offered for sale by Christie's in New York a few weeks later.
In an interview with the newspaper Le Figaro yesterday, M. Garel said he had confessed under duress. He denied stealing anything from the BNF and accused its administrators of making him a "scapegoat" for their own incompetence.
M. Garel said he had warned his bosses over many years that rare items were going missing. The basement of the library's old building, in the first arrondissement in central Paris, was connected by a labyrinth of underground passageways to nearby antiquarian bookshops, he said.
"Personally, I have located four places you could get into the library without any problem, before pilfering at will," he said.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Garel case, an audit of the library's stocks, the first for many years, suggests that at least 30,000 books or manuscripts are missing.
Many of these are relatively valueless copies of 19th- and 20th-century works of literature or history. The BNF, like the British Library in London, is given a copy of every book published in France.
More disturbingly, 1,183 priceless books or documents from the library's "precious core" cannot be traced. More than 200 of these are medieval manuscripts or books from the dawn of the age of printing.
Agnès Saal, director general of the library, said: "It is very difficult to establish when these items disappeared. We are outraged but not especially surprised. Some of them come from collections that have not been checked for many years. There used to be an ostrich policy here, but that is not acceptable any more. You have to admit to what has been lost." In 1996, the library moved to a new home, the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, beside the Seine in eastern Paris. Security is now said to have been greatly tightened. But many ancient texts and manuscripts are still stored in the original building in central Paris.
The theft of ancient books from public libraries is a worldwide problem. Libraries are vulnerable to attack because they see it as their duty to make texts available to genuine scholars.
M. Garel is accused of selling ancient manuscripts and books to a British-Israeli dealer named only as "D S". In a statement to French investigators, D S said he had paid M. Garel $500,000 (£273,000). He denied knowing the treasures were stolen. Part of the case against M. Garel has collapsed because there was no sworn and licensed interpreter present when D S gave evidence. The dealer has been interviewed a second time.
The curator said yesterday: "I have proclaimed my innocence from the first day they put handcuffs on me. I am the perfect scapegoat because of the poor relations I have had with my superiors for years. I have never accepted a centime for anything belonging to the BNF or any other public collection."
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