A forger, thief, library director

It was one of the most dramatic thefts ever to hit the rare book world, the disappearance of thousands of volumes including centuries-old editions of Aristotle, Descartes, Galileo and Machiavelli from the Baroque-era Girolamini Library in Naples.

The man charged with protecting these treasures, Marino Massimo De Caro, a politically-connected former director of the library, is accused of being at the centre of a network of middlemen and book dealers all part of what prosecutors say is a sometimes corrupt market for rare books in which few questions are asked. Apart from De Caro, 13 others are charged, including a priest.

The full extent of the losses is not known the library lacks a complete catalogue but prosecutors have compared it to the destruction of Dresden during World War II. In 2012, the authorities recovered more than 1,000 library volumes from a self-storage unit in Verona traced to De Caro.

"This is the biggest books scandal to hit in the past 150-200 years," said Fabrizio Govi, president of the Italian Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, adding that nothing of this scope had happened since the case of Count Guglielmo Libri, a 19th-century Italian collector who absconded with books on a grand scale.

Rare books admired by connoisseurs have been fetching increasingly higher prices. Last week, the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in English in North America, became the most expensive ever bought at auction when it sold for $14,165,000.

Last year, the International Association of Antiquarian Booksellers issued a warning for buyers and sellers to check any Italian books from the 15th through 17th centuries purchased in the first half of 2012, in case they had been removed from the Girolamini.

"The international market absorbed, without batting an eye, books that they couldn't not have known came from the Girolamini Library," Giovanni Melillo, the Naples prosecutor who is leading the investigations, said. "The rule 'don't ask, don't tell' is what governs the rare book market," he added.

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