Brazil’s largest robbery of rare books

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The former Central Library of the University of Brazil – currently the Pedro Calmon Library of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), which houses rarities from Imperial times – was robbed last year, and now, after surveying what disappeared from the shelves, what has been discovered is astonishing: the greatest theft of rare books ever recorded in the country.

Three-hundred and three rare works have disappeared, among them the 16 volumes of the first edition of Sermões by Father Antônio Vieira (1610) and almost the entirety of the Coleção Brasiliana, composed of books by European travelers that recorded flora, fauna and customs of the 17th to 19th century in the country.

Precious works such as Expédition dans les parties centrales de l’Amérique du Sud (1850-1859), by the French naturalist Francis de Castelnau, with hundreds of hand-painted lithographs, and a book by the German ethnographer Thomas Koch-Grümberg, a pioneer of anthropological photography, with 141 photos of Indians from the region of the Japurá River in the Amazon, portrayed between 1903 and 1905. The main targets were works with engravings, which are usually cut with a razor and sold separately.

The suspicion is that the theft had been taking place over months during a renovation of the building in 2016. The shelves were enclosed with black plastic bags – and it was within them that thieves worked.

At first, the crime seemed small. Two criminals – Laéssio Rodrigues de Oliveira, 44, a former Library Sciences student involved in book robberies since 1998, and Valnique Bueno, his partner – were arrested by the São Paulo police in November for stealing works from the Faculties of Architecture and Law of the University of São Paulo (USP).

Since there were five rarities from UFRJ with them, the alarm was given at the Praia Vermelha campus in Rio. Today, six months later, the size of the crime is understood, a lot greater than ten or so copies. On the market, one can have idea of ​​going rates: just the 27 books mentioned as the “most rare” among the stolen ones are worth between US$119 – $157,000, according to an appraiser.

“The thief knew what to steal, he didn’t take them at random,” says police officer Marcelo Gondim, from São Paulo’s Tourism Police, who arrested Laéssio and his partner in November. “Security cameras show the pair stealing from USP. At UFRJ there are no images, but we arrested them for receiving [stolen goods]. The link to the theft in Rio is that the same books found with Laéssio and bookplates from UFRJ were thrown in a trash can at his house. “In March, three books by Pedro Calmon were recovered by the IRS – they went to Europe and had Laéssio as the sender. Currently, the Federal Police are investigating the crime.

An Old Acquaintance

Still without knowing the damage at the Rio institution, those who work in the area celebrated the imprisonment of Laéssio. He is an old acquaintance – he was convicted at least three times for theft of rare books and indicted for the same reason “countless times,” as indicated by a court decision. The largest collections in the country have already been his victims, such as the Mário de Andrade Library, the National Museum, National Library, Itamaraty Palace and the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, among others.

Most books have never been found – the rate of recovery is 40%, according to Raphael Greenhalgh from the University of Brasilia (UnB), who wrote a doctoral thesis on the greatest thefts in the country, none as numerous as the one at Pedro Calmon. When the books return, it’s common for them to be adulterated. In a crime for which Laéssio was convicted, the theft in the National Museum, 14 rare works had the illustrations cut out.

With the new crime, librarians once again looked at Laéssio – and what they discovered caused an uprising. The life of the criminal will turn into film, financed with public money. Confissões de um Ladrão de Livros (Confessions of a Book Thief) is the title of the project, presented to the National Film Agency (Ancine) by Boutique Filmes. The agency authorized sponsorship of $242,000 through the Audiovisual Law. So far the producer has received $188,000 from Globo Filmes and the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES).

The fact that a notorious thief of public assets received government support to have his life portrayed on film led the victims to come together in protest. The Technical Chamber of Collection Security of the National Archives, attached to the Ministry of Justice, is preparing a document to repudiate the production. “It sounds like a mockery. Nothing against a film about crimes, but upon authorizing sponsorship, Ancine gives their stamp of approval for damages to public patrimony,” says Marcelo Lima, from the Technical Chamber.


“Imagine a young gay man from the projects on the outskirts of São Paulo obsessed with Carmen Miranda who becomes, according to the Federal Police, the biggest thief of rare books in Brazil. Imagine the tricks that allowed him to pillage the main libraries in the country, hunting for commissioned books worth their weight in gold to millionaire collectors…”


The synopsis of the film is also cause for discontent. Some of the excerpts: “The best thing of all is that Laéssio is real, flesh and blood, and his escalation in crime can be attested to by news stories …” and “throughout his journey, Laessio composed an incalculable portfolio.”

For the victims, they are signs that the film may glamorize the thief. “The only thing missing is to put a clown nose on public servants. It’d be the ‘icing on the cake’,” says Maria José da Silva Fernandes, director of the collection center of the National Library. “He’s not a Robin Hood of books. He removes them from a public institution and sells them to private individuals,” says the former director of the Mário de Andrade Library Luiz Armando Bagolin. “I have often tried to use incentive laws to maintain the collection, and nothing [happens]. Now a thief of Brazilian culture can?”, asks Jose Tavares Filho, the librarian responsible for the collection at Pedro Calmon.

Boutique Filmes says the synopsis was made before production actually began. And the result will not be the glamorization of Laéssio’s life.

After the theft, UFRJ reinforced the locks in the library and is installing new cameras. As for Laéssio, more news came out earlier this month: he was already going to answer for the USP and UFRJ cases, but he was again arrested in Rio, convicted by the Federal Court for theft at the National Museum in 2004. The penalty is ten years in jail, for aggravated robbery for a “serious disregard of national memory.”

Those who take care of this memory have celebrated a little, but remain skeptical: the general feeling among librarians is that, as one of them wrote, “stealing books doesn’t mean jail time in Brazil.” – Source (PT)

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