The Value of a “Priceless” Rare Book

by Admin on April 25, 2022 · The Book Trade

The Cambridge University Library has announced that the two notebooks written by Charles Darwin, worth many millions of pounds and which have been missing for more than two decades have been safely returned. Apart from the content of the notebooks, one of which contains his iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch, there is no more intriguing question than “What are they worth?” The University had estimated their value to be “priceless” by placing it at: “many millions of pounds.”

Legendary book dealer William S. Reese, during his presentation at Brown University, in the fall of 1999, referenced the then value of the Bay Psalm Book to be: “not exactly priceless in the sense that the market would place a value on it if it were for sale; but it is priceless in the sense that Yale has no plans to sell it.” Reese, who passed away in 2018, is universally acknowledged to be the greatest American antiquarian bookseller of his generation. He lived long enough to observe the sale of another copy of the Bay Psalm Book, which sold for the price of 14.2 million US dollars at a Sotheby’s auction, in November of 2013.

Most institutions mark a valuable acquisition with a stamp identifying ownership which in turn destroys the value of the book for resale. The Darwin notebooks did not carry the usual library stamps, which made them vulnerable to heist. Fortunately, in this case, the thief was unable or did not attempt to trade the unmarked, unique notebooks, or, perhaps a guilty buyer acted properly by returning them to the owner. It requires two parties, as in all trades, and in this case, in addition to the thief, there could have been a buyer who was well aware of the rarity and the value of the books, should one had chosen to join in the crime. An incunabulum manuscript of this value would be such a prominent holding, that any thief who wanted to avoid detection would not steal one.

During the period starting in 1992, and ending in April of 2017, a similar crime took place at the Oliver Room Room, the home to the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh’s rare books and archives. Greg Priore, manager of the room, stole: 276 hand-colored lithographic maps of the European exploration; 1,500 photogravure prints of Native Americans, created by Edward Curtis in the first decades of the 20th century; 155 hand-colored lithographs from John James Audubon’s 1851-54 Quadrupeds of North America; 51 plates and maps from John Ogilby’s America; all the maps from Ptolemy’s 1548 La Geographia; the contents of the 18-volume set of Giovanni Piranesi’s extremely rare etchings, printed between 1748 and 1807; a collection of sermons printed in 1473; a first edition of Isaac Newton’s 98; a first edition of The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith; a letter written by William Jennings Bryan; a rare copy of Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s 1898 memoir, Eighty Years and More: Reminiscences 1815-1897; a first English edition of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron; a first edition of George Eliot’s Silas Marner; and more!

On the other end of this heist, was a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), founder of the Caliban Book Shop, John Schulman. Schulman would stamp at the bottom of the bookplate adhered to the inside front cover of all Oliver Room items brought to him by Priore, “Withdrawn from Library,” in bright red ink. That mark was enough to cancel out all other library stamps present inside the book, map, or plate. Schulman’s catalog description noted the book’s condition as: “very good with minor ex-library marks.”

Both Priore and Schulman pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property and committing theft. Sentencing in property crimes depends largely on the replacement value of each of the stolen items. The advisors hired by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh to determine the replacement value, concluded that it was more than $8 million, in another example of a “priceless” evaluation. Judge Bicket sentenced Greg Priore to three years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation. Schulman received four years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation, an extremely light sentencing. I guess those library stamps must serve a purpose after all!

Reese, William S. “The Rare Book Market Today”, Yale University Library Gazette, Vol 74, Nos 3-4 April 2000.

McDade, Travis. 2020, “The Inside Story of the $8 Million Heist From the Carnegie Library.” Smithsonian Magazine, <>

Roberts, Stuart. 2022, “Missing Darwin notebooks returned to Cambridge University Library” Cambridge University Libraries, <>


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