The Rio de Janeiro Federal University (UFRJ) suffered the largest rare book heist in Brazilian history. Last year, 303 works disappeared from the shelves of the prestigious university’s Pedro Calmon Library. Many pieces dated back to colonial times.
Among the stolen artifacts were 16 of the first edition volumes of the sermons of Father Antônio Vieira (1610). Almost the entire collection of travel diaries written by European voyagers in the 17th to 19th centuries also disappeared.
The thief also stole seminal anthropological works. For example, one book by the German ethnographer Thomas Koch-Grümberg contained 141 photos of indigenous peoples along the Japurá and Rio Negro in the Amazon. Another was the Expédition dans les parties centrales de l’Amérique du Sud (1850-1859) by the English naturalist Francis de Castelnau. The work contained hundreds of pages of lithography painted by hand.
Books with original carvings, made with knives in a pain-staking process, appear to have been the main target of the heist.
Although at first the crime seemed small-scale, authorities finally tallied the final stolen book count six months later. In addition to 303 rare works, the thieves also stole another 120 ancient books. To give an idea of the scale of the heist, the 27 “most rare” books alone are worth between $120,000 and $160,000.
The heist took place over months while the building was under construction. All the shelves were covered in black plastic bags, under which the thieves worked.
“The thief knew what to steal, he didn’t take things at random,” said deputy Marcelo Gondim Monteiro. Security cameras show the pair stealing works from the University of São Paulo libraries last fall. No images exist from the UFRJ, however the police found books in the suspect’s house.
The suspect, Laéssio Rodrigues de Oliveira, 44, is a former library science student implicated in book heists dating back to 2004. Other libraries which have suffered at his hand are the famous Mário de Andrade Library, the National Museum, the Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, the Paraná Public Library, and the Itamaraty Palace, among others. On average, authorities have only recovered 40 percent of his stolen works.
A film project portraying Oliveira’s exploits, titled “Confessions of a Book Thief”, has received $245,000 from the National Cinema Agency (Ancine) for production. Librarians have protested the film as glamourizing Oliveira’s thefts.