"It was like putting a fox in a chicken coop," an Italian prosecutor said of thefts and forgeries traced around world.
NAPLES, ITALY - For months, the alarm has been resounding throughout the insular world of antiquarian books: Beware of volumes bearing the stamp of the storied Girolamini Library in Naples. They could be hot.
The library's former director, Marino Massimo De Caro, was arrested in May, accused of systematically despoiling the library in his care. And sharp sleuthing by a professor in Atlanta has raised questions about De Caro and the sale of other, possibly forged, books.
It started with a chance visit to the library in March by Tomaso Montanari, a professor of art history at the University of Naples and a regular contributor to the daily newspaper Il Fatto Quotidiano. What he saw there -- piles of books and empty shelves amid soda cans and garbage -- immediately went into print, and that prompted a petition signed by hundreds of Italian intellectuals questioning De Caro's appointment as director.
Italian prosecutors took note, and weeks later De Caro was in prison, accused of -- but not yet charged with -- embezzlement and conspiracy. Prosecutors say that in the 11 months during which he managed the library, De Caro stole hundreds of its volumes. Investigators found boxes of valuable books in garages and private homes in several cities as well as in auction houses abroad. Four people said to have conspired with De Caro were also jailed.
"So far, we've tracked down some 3,000 books" including some blocked at auction, said Giovanni Melillo, the Naples prosecutor handling the investigation. He said that De Caro was the head of a criminal gang created to despoil the library, which had been mostly off limits to the public for decades. "There was a lucidly conceived plan behind it all," Melillo said. "It was like putting a fox in a chicken coop."
One problem facing investigators is that they do not know the exact number of books that might have been stolen. Only half of the 170,000 volumes in the collection were ever cataloged, said Mauro Giancaspro, the director of the National Library of Naples.
De Caro had at least one academic credential: He had published a two-volume study of Galileo. That connected him to Georgia State University Prof. Nick Wilding, who is investigating the authenticity of several of the astronomer's books.
One, a copy of "Sidereus Nuncius," Galileo's novel observations of the cosmos first published in Venice in 1610, clearly is a forgery, Wilding says. "It all seemed very convincing. The paper appeared genuine, the binding seemed convincing." But there were "minor details that made me question the entire account," he said.
Owen Gingerich, professor emeritus of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard, also noticed flaws. He said De Caro brought the book with forged watercolors to his office in 2005, when he was trying to sell it. "I told him that the watercolors could not have been made by Galileo because of an astronomical blunder in one of the drawings," he said.
Gingerich said: "We've seen missing pages replaced in facsimile, but no one dreamed that an entire book could be forged, something that is now more easily possible because of modern technology."