Friday, August 9th, 2013...11:20 am

Box its ears and send it home

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If this book should chance to roam/
Box its ears and send it home

That bit of doggerel has been inscribed on books for many years in the hopes that if lost, they would be returned to the rightful owner. It came to mind when the story of a book roaming from our collections was recently brought to my attention. The newly published book Thieves of Book Row opens with a harrowing description of an unscrupulous bookseller and his henchman on a “shopping trip” through Harvard’s Widener Library in 1929, plundering the shelves of a hundred valuable books and later purging them of ownership markings for resale. One particularly choice item, A Set of Plans and Forts in America, was sold to a Manhattan bookseller, who then sold it to the New-York Historical Society. As can be seen from the digitized copy at the Massachusetts Historical Society, the book is an attractive and historically significant set of colonial maps with a particular emphasis on locations relevant in the Seven Years’ War. It’s quite rare, so as curator of this time period, if I had to replace it today, I’d be hard pressed to do so.

Thankfully, this story has a happy ending, and I don’t have to. Just three years after the theft, in 1932, the New-York Historical Society discovered the nefarious origins of its purchase and promptly returned it to Harvard. We can positively identify the copy now in the Houghton collection as this wayward sheep, because it still has the N-YHS bookplate in it (despite a penciled note calling for its removal). The discovery of the theft led to dramatically improved security measures at Widener, including the enlargement of the Treasure Room, a special area for the most valuable collections, and the precursor to Houghton.

A set of plans and forts in America. (London, 1763) US 2737.63*

[John Overholt, Curator of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson and Early Modern Books & Manuscripts, contributed this post.]

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