John Ezra Schulman, the owner of Caliban Books in Oakland, was charged with stealing more than $8 million of rare books and other publications from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Also charged in the heist — the details of which are described in a 54-page criminal complaint that reads like a treatment for a caper film — is former Carnegie Library archivist Greg Priore, 61.
The scope of the library thefts “ranks it among the world’s largest losses to date,” according to the complaint.
Schulman, 54, was charged on July 20 with several counts of theft, receiving stolen property, dealing in the proceeds of illegal activity, criminal conspiracy, forgery and deceptive or fraudulent business practices. The charges against Priore include library theft. The two men turned themselves in at City Court downtown, and both were released on their own recognizance after their arraignment.
Schulman’s shop deals in rare books as well as paperback fiction, poetry and philosophy. He declined to speak to the Chronicle and directed inquiries to his attorney, Albert Veverka.
“We will review the charges and look at the complaint and dissect it,” Veverka said. “We don’t yet know the full scope of the allegations. There are varying offenses relating to theft and stolen property. We will see what they are alleging and proceed from there.”
A preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Aug. 1, but Veverka said that it is unlikely it will proceed on that day because of the breadth of the charges.
Caliban Books, which Schulman has co-owned with his wife, Emily Hetzel since 1991, remains open for business, and the court has placed no restrictions on his movements, Veverka said, adding that the magistrate determined that he is “not a flight risk.”
In addition to the shop at 410 S. Craig St., Caliban Books has a warehouse in Wilkinsburg that is associated with its online sales. Accessible by appointment only, the Ross Avenue site holds approximately 150,000 books, half of which are not indexed.
Caliban has clients from around the world, employee Seth Glick told the Chronicle in an interview in April 2017.
“If you have a computer, you can buy a book from us,” Glick said, “and we can pop it in the mail, and you can have it in two weeks no matter where you are.”
Some of the damage, according to the complaint, “consisted of images, maps and/or plates having been torn or cut from their respective book, atlas or folio, often rendering the remaining item worthless.”
Pall Mall’s review found that 320 items were missing from the collection, and another 16 had been “diminished” or vandalized by removing a portion of the original item. The “retail replacement” value of the items that are missing or diminished totals in excess of $8.1 million.
Priore was appointed to be the sole archivist and manager of the Oliver Room in 1992 and held that position until he was placed on leave in April 2017. He was ultimately terminated on June 28 of that year.
According to the complaint, several of the items missing were discovered to be sold or advertised for sale by or through Caliban Books. Among the missing books was “De la France et des Etats-Unis,” a 1787 first edition signed by Thomas Jefferson and listed for sale online for $95,000.
The complaint refers to email correspondence of Priore indicating that he was having difficulty paying his children’s tuition at the Ellis School and at Duquesne University, as well as the rent for his apartment.
Priore told investigators that he believed the last time he sold an item to Schulman was in December 2016, because he knew that an appraisal of the Oliver Room would occur in 2017. After telling Schulman about the upcoming audit, the two men spoke about “trying to cover things up,” according to the complaint.
Priore estimated that, over the years, he sold several hundred items to Schulman from the library, and that Schulman paid him somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000. But after reviewing Priore’s bank account records, investigators say they found he received 56 checks from Caliban totaling $117,700, plus several large cash deposits totaling $17,000.
Priore told investigators: “I should have never done this. I loved that room, my whole working life, and greed came over me. I did it, but Schulman spurred me on.”
A search of the Caliban warehouse revealed many items stolen from the Oliver Room, as well as numerous sales receipts of items sold by Caliban, including receipts for scores of items that matched the list of items stolen or “cannibalized” from the Oliver Room.
Investigators also found items stolen from the Oliver Room at Schulman’s Squirrel Hill residence.
A Carnegie Library employee, Jennifer Jarvis, told investigators that in the early 2000s, while she was working in the closed stacks area of the library, she saw Schulman looking at books with Priore, although she knew that area was closed to the public. She said she “heard the two discussing plates that were inside of a book and how much they would be worth individually if removed from the book,” and said that she was “shocked” by the discussion.
Some of the stolen items have been recovered, the complaint states, due to the efforts of Pall Mall, the District Attorney’s Office, “and the art collecting community.” The recovered items have an estimated total value of $1,152,100. PJC