Yenching Plundered

Chinese books stolen

A rare-book librarian discovered on March 14, 2000, that books and scrolls with an estimated market value of $1 million were missing from a safe at the Harvard-Yenching Library at 2 Divinity Avenue in Cambridge. The robbery did not become widely known to the public until October.

Missing are 33 books, a handwritten scroll, a painting in the form of a hanging scroll, and 10 individual volumes (comparable to chapters) from 10 sets of books. The books are about a variety of topics-- although many concern Buddhist teachings--and date from 960 to 1911. The scrolls are unique and some of the early books, printed from carved woodblocks, are the only known extant copies.

A very small number of individuals had legitimate access to the safe, but perhaps not all of them kept the combination in secure locations. Furthermore, book thieves have included in their ranks some exceedingly accomplished lock-pickers. It is quite possible that some unauthorized person entered the safe and made off with the books and scrolls. As is typical with Chinese books, these were in small boxes, and the thief left the boxes behind, perhaps hoping to delay discovery that their contents had gone. Whether the theft was done all at once or at intervals is unclear. One of the objects was used in the autumn of 1999, and so it, at least, departed subsequently.

In October a Boston Globe reporter came upon news of the robbery and photographs of missing items on a website of the Federal Bureau of Investigation ( and wrote about the theft.

"The loss of the books was made known to me on March 14," says Detective Sergeant Richard Mederos of the Harvard University Police Department. The library gave Mederos a list of the books in Chinese, which was not very useful for him to circulate to other law enforcement agencies or to book dealers. Peter Bol, professor of Chinese history, then translated the titles into English and put a value on the material. Meantime, the library staff searched painstakingly through their collection of about a million volumes--the largest collection of East Asian books in an academic institution outside Asia--to make sure that the books and scrolls had indeed been taken from the building. By late May Mederos was able to begin circulating lists of the stolen items. Officials of the Harvard College Library decided not to issue a press release about the theft at that time, on the eve of Commencement, but proceeded openly to investigate it. Rare book librarians and dealers worldwide began sharing views about the theft on Exlibris, an e-mail discussion list.

These are not books that can profitably be chopped into pieces suitable for framing, and they cannot be sold on the open market safely. Why were they wanted? Speculation has ranged widely. Librarians and security personnel-- charged with protecting treasures while facilitating access to them--know well that the motives and methods of book thieves are richly assorted (see "Biblioklepts," March-April 1997, page 38).

The monetary value of the material may be $1 million, but its cultural value is unknowable--as a newly established precedent attests. In 1995 Daniel A. Spiegelman was taken into custody in the Netherlands, where he had tried to sell a fourteenth-century manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, part of material valued in all at $1.3 million that he had stolen from Columbia University's Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In 1997, with much of the material still missing, he admitted to burglarizing the library and entered into a plea agreement with the United States attorney. Sentencing guidelines would have led to a sentence of no more than 37 months. Believing that the proposed punishment did not fit the crime, District Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, J.D. '69, found that Spiegelman "caused non-monetary loss to Columbia, scholarship, and to society as a result of the inability of scholars to use the stolen materials....To treat Spiegelman's offense as being of the same gravity as the theft of $1.3 million in cash would be to deny the unmistakable importance of the undiscovered knowledge likely buried within the items he stole." Kaplan departed from the guidelines and sentenced the thief to five years in prison.

Kaplan had sought the guidance of Jean W. Ashton, A.M. '61, director of the plundered library, and a number of her colleagues in the field in his efforts to determine the true value of the stolen books. The librarians testified eloquently, and the judge heard them. Roger Stoddard, curator of rare books at Harvard's Houghton Library, stated, "We need all the evidence that we can get [to understand history]--scarce as it is, and we depend on the continuing accessibility of old books and manuscripts, so we can test the accuracy of new interpretations....All depends completely on the maintenance and security of library collections: destroy, mutilate, steal, or hide the books and manuscripts and you frustrate the development of knowledge and the free interchange of scholarship and teaching."

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