When I was about 16, I fell in love with books. Oh, I don’t mean reading — I was in love with reading long before then. I mean that I fell in love with books as objects, as vessels of information with their own form and function. In college I took a course on bibliography called The History of the Book, which only served to make the love stronger. In 2002 I studied bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. So, when the 46th Annual California International Antiquarian Book Fair came to town, of course I had to visit. While I was at the fair, I attended a talk titled “Forging Galileo” by assistant professor Nick Wilding of Georgia State University, and it kind of blew my mind.
Professor Wilding’s research exposed a pair of forgeries of Galileo Galilei’s 1610 book Sidereus Nuncius. But what was most remarkable to me was the sophistication of the forgeries. One of them, purchased in 2005 by New York book dealer Martayan Lan, was authenticated as genuine by a group of seven international institutions, whose teams included paper experts, materials scientists, and book historians. These forgeries were nearly perfect. They were exquisite.
The forgeries were committed as part of a giant fraud that seems to have originated with a man named Marino Massimo de Caro, who was appointed as the director of one of the finest libraries in Italy, the Girolamini Library in Naples. He had no qualifications for the job, and his appointment as director of this library can only be described as a pretty clearly questionable piece of decision making. After his appointment, he began a systematic ransacking of the library, stealing books and selling them on the black market. At some point, he seems to have begun forging as a way to get even more books from other libraries. He would produce a forgery of a book, visit the library that housed the genuine original, steal it, and leave the forgery behind in its place.
His fraud ring fell apart in early 2012 after the horrible conditions at the Girolamini Library were exposed, but not before he had stolen an estimated 4,000 books.
But the forgeries, they are absolutely startling. They are not cheap knockoffs. They were so good that only a few telltale problems eventually exposed them under professor Wilding’s investigation. And let’s be clear, in order to produce these forgeries, an entire team of experts would have been needed.
- They used handmade modern paper that included period appropriate water marks. Someone very familiar with the craft of paper making and paper mould making would have been required to do this.
- They were in authentic and genuine period bindings. A master bookbinder would have had to do the job. The rebinding would have required expert skill, including knowledge of period materials and techniques.
- The printing was done using letterpress techniques, almost surely using photopolymer plates in order to preserve the original design and yet give a “bite” to the printing. Perhaps surprisingly, this would have been the least technically challenging part of the job, because photopolymer plate making is now within reach of the average hobbyist.
- Each forgery was tailored to the specific institution where it was to be left, including stamps and owner marks. The Martayan Lan Sidereus Nuncius included a Galileo signature that was deemed authentic, as well as a stamp from Federico Cesi’s Accademia dei Licei Library, which was also deemed authentic.
Put together, a tremendous amount of effort had to go into these forgeries. Remarkable skill had to be employed. But, unfortunately, we still don’t know the details. Apparently, Massimo de Caro isn’t spilling the beans on how this was accomplished.
I am left somewhat dumbfounded. Personally, I would love nothing more than to know all the details of how it was done. I’d also sort of like to strangle Massimo de Caro, but I’ll leave that up to the Italian courts.
Galileo’s O, book detailing the authentication of the Martayan Lan Sidereus Nuncius, Irene Brückle, Oliver Hahn, Paul Needham. Akademie Verlag, Sep 21, 2011.
GSU historian uncovers forgery of prominent Galileo book, Jeremy Craig, August 16, 2012.
At Root of Italy Library’s Plunder, a Tale of Entrenched Practices, Elisabetta Povoledo, The New York Times, August 11, 2012.
Reflections on Girolamini: Libraries, Funding and the People we Trust, Blog of the University of St. Andrews Special Collections.
The Girolamini Library thefts, or the “best intentions” defense, Sal Robinson. October 24, 2012.
Italian library director accused of stealing works by Galileo and other books, Nick Squires, The Telegraph. October 9, 2012.
Girolamini Library’s Disappearing Books, Gian Antonio Stella, Corrierre Della Sera. April 17, 2012.