The Man Who Loved Books Too Much: The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

Allison Hoover Bartlett

Created on Wednesday, September 7, 2011.
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An excellent investigation of a prolific rare-book–thief, his motives, his victims, and the people who caught him.

 

“Perhaps there were too many volumes to keep to the simple small-medium-large arrangement at home, because Jefferson proposed a classification scheme he adapted from Francis Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning, in which books were organized within the broad categories of Memory, Reason, and Imagination, poetic divisions I’d like to see bookstores adopt today. It might take longer to find what you’re looking for, but in browsing, who knows what you’d find.”

 

“Don Vincente was a nineteenth-century Spanish monk who stole from the library of his Cistercian cloister in northeast Spain, as well as from several other ancient monasteries. After disappearing for a time, he resurfaced as the owner of a remarkably well-stocked antiquarian book shop in Barcelona, where he had a reputation for buying more books than he sold, selling only those he considered the most pedestrian, and keeping the rarest for himself.

One particular volume obsessed him: Furs e ordinacions fetes par los gloriosos reys de Aragon als regnicols del regne de Valencia (Edicts and Ordinances for Valencia), printed in 1482 by Lamberto Palmart, the first printer in Spain. In 1836, upon its owner’s death, the book was offered at auction. It was thought to be the only existing copy, and Don Vincente was determined to acquire it. Although he offered all the money he owned, Augustino Patxot, a dealer whose shop was near Don Vincente’s, outbid him. Don Vincente appeared to have lost his senses, mumbling threats in the street, and did not even take the reales de consolación, a small payment the highest bidder had to give to the next highest according to custom at Spanish auctions.

Three nights later, Patxot’s house went up in flames, and the next day his charred body was found. Soon, the bodies of nine learned men were also found, all of whom had been stabbed to death. Outbursts at the auction had made Don Vincente an obvious suspect. When his house was searched, the Furs e ordinacions was found hidden on a top shelf, along with books that had belonged to the other victims. He confessed to strangling Patxot and stabbing the others only after the magistrate assured him that his library would be well cared for once he was incarcerated.

In court, when the judge asked the accused why he hadn’t ever stolen money from his victims, he replied, "I am not a thief.” Of having taken their lives, he said, “Every man must die, sooner or later, but good books must be conserved.” His lawyer argued that his client was insane. In addition, the lawyer noted with great import that he had just discovered that another copy of the book was in Paris, and argued that because of this, it could not be proved that the copy found in Don Vincente’s house was Patxot’s. His client, utterly despairing, cried, “Alas, alas! My copy is not unique!” He was heard repeating this phrase up until the time he was executed in 1836 in Barcelona.“

 

"But just as quickly, he returned to his self-centered logic. "I mean, how am I supposed to build my collection unless I’m, like, this multimillionaire?” Gilkey had a wish that he could not afford to grant himself, thus those who kept him from doing so, dealers, were to blame.

What must it be like, I wondered, to view the world in such a way, to feel entitled to all one desired and to be able to justify to oneself any means of obtaining it? If this were truly how Gilkey perceived the world, and every conversation with him confirmed this feeling (I could not think of any reason for him to have presented these views to me as any sort of disguise; after all, they were not flattering), then perhaps he was mentally ill. He was aware that stealing books was illegal, and yet he continued to steal them, because he did not equate illegal with wrong. Was this a permanent state of mind, or could he change? He didn’t seem to want to.

Instead, he kept his mind on his collection, imagining how it would elevate his position in society. Gilkey would be regarded as a man of culture and erudition, just like the woman in the wealth management advertisement I had seen who was pictured leaving a rare book shop. Everywhere he looked — movies, television, books, advertisements, clothing catalogs — were images that confirmed our culture’s reverence not for literature, per se, but for an accumulation of books as a sign that you belonged among gentility. Through his collection, Gilkey would occupy a revered place in an envied world.“

 

"Physical artifacts carry memory and meaning, and this is as true of important historical texts as it is of cherished childhood books. Sitting in any library, surrounded by high shelves of books, I sense the profoundly rich history of scholarship as something real, and it’s both humbling and inspiring.

This manifestation of reality is true of other artifacts as well. We can read about the Holocaust or where Emily Dickinson wrote her "letter to the world” or where Jim Morrison is buried. We can view online photos of all these places. Still, each year, thousands of people visit Auschwitz, The Homestead, and Père Lachaise. I suppose our desire to be near books rises from a similar impulse; they root us in something larger than ourselves, something real. For this reason, I am sure that hardbound books will survive, even long after e-books have become popular. When I walk down the street and almost everyone I pass is sequestered in his own iPod or cell phone universe, I can’t help thinking that our connection to books is still, after all these centuries, as important as it is intangible.“

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
© Desi Quintans, 2002 – 2018.