***Article originally published in Spanish in El Puercoespín ***
The world of books and manuscripts is a small one, full of intrigues, prone to betrayals and frauds. Alberto Casares has lived in this world for decades. President of the antique booksellers of Buenos Aires, he is one of Argentina’s biggest experts on the subject. He’s got the perfect physique–du-rôl: grey, messy beard; soft body; intense and wary look.
Mistrust is a requisite of his job. A few months ago, he was offered a 17th-century original edition of ‘Don Quixote of La Mancha’ for €1m. He studied it carefully, cautious but unable to repress an emotion akin to that of a pilgrim before the Holy Sepulchre. It was a well-known forgery from the 19th century, he found; even though it had a value of its own, it was worth no more than €200,000. The seller took it away, determined to find a more unsuspecting client, and Casares was left alone with the melancholy of having lost that object that was never his.
What would some people give to own it? Talking about a former client, he once told me: “Suddenly, ambition drove him to do illegal things. But that’s happened many times. Bibliographers commit crimes due to the mad desire to own certain things.”
That former client was Daniel Pastore, collector of antique books and first editions, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune and owner of Imago Mundi, Buenos Aires’ most elegant antique books and prints shop, which closed down a few years ago due to a succession of international scandals involving him.
He was annoyed and fascinated by Pastore. He was 18 the first time he walked into his book shop: he returned regularly ever since. He was handsome, rich, likeable, and an erudite, which made him a good client, but he was also pedantic and liked to make Casares feel he knew more than him.
Sometimes he did know more. But not about Jorge Luis Borges.
One morning in late 1999, Pastore brought a copy of the first edition of ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’. It is Borges’ first published book (he had written two more before, which remained unpublished), but, for men like Pastore and Casares, it was something else: the most valuable first edition of Argentina’s greatest 20th century literary glory (and one of the greatest in the world).
On the outside, a copy of the first edition of ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’ is a thin book, without prologue or imprint. The edition was paid for by the writer’s father when he was 23. “I wrote these poems between 1921 and 1923, and the volume came out early in 1923,” says Borges in his English-language essay ‘Autobiographical Notes‘, published by The New Yorker in September 1970. “The book was actually printed in five days; the printing had to be rushed, because it was necessary for us to return to Europe. (My father wanted to consult his Genevan doctor about his sight). I had bargained for 64 pages, but the manuscript ran too long and at the last minute five poems had to be left out – mercifully. I can’t remember a single thing about them. The book was produced in a somewhat boyish spirit. No proof-reading was done, no table of contents was provided, and the pages were unnumbered. My sister [Norah] made a woodcut for the cover, and three hundred copies were printed (…) I never thought of sending copies to the booksellers or out for review. Most of them I just gave away.”
On the inside, the unique depiction of an experience. Borges had lived in Europe between 1914 and 1921, and the 46 poems he gathered in ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’ reflect what he found upon returning to Argentina. “The city of his childhood had changed, not just because the years had passed but because those years were decisive for Argentina,” explains Beatriz Sarlo, one of the great experts on his works. “During the second decade of the 20th century, that which was bubbling under the surface when the Borges family left for Europe in 1914, was consolidated. At the time, Buenos Aires was being built as a modern city; when Borges returned, though it was still transforming, it had almost lost the most colourful marks of its criollo village past. (…) Borges returned, then, to a place he did not know. The shock, which Simmel has described as the intense and surprising relationship that is established with the modern city, is magnified in the situation of someone arriving from Europe where he has also experienced the shock of the avant-garde. That combination (the avant-garde rhetoric and the surprise over finding an urban space so different to what he remembered from his childhood) produces an alchemy which Borges turns into his first literary invention.”
Borges stated that: “‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’ foreshadows everything I would do afterwards.” Any self-respecting collector of his works owns a copy from that first edition. As there are not many left -according to Casares, around 150; according to Alejandro Vaccaro, Borges collector and biographer, no more than 15 in circulation- they are not easy to get.
But Pastore had that copy in his hands. Could Casares confirm that it was a legitimate first edition? “I was offered it at a very tempting price,” he revealed, without saying how much. Casares knew it was worth between US$30,000 and 40,000.
He examined the book and identified it immediately. It was ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’ from the ‘Peña Collection’, sold to the National Library a couple of months earlier by Juan Manuel Peña, its owner. He knew this copy very well because six years earlier Peña had lent it to him to make a facsimile edition (300 copies): it had no cover, it showed a hand-written dedication by the author to poet Nydia Lamarque, and in the fifth line of the poem ‘Villa Urquiza’ there was a correction, also hand-written:
Atendido de amor y rica esperanza,
¡cuántas veces he visto morir sus calles agrestes
en el Juicio Final de cada tarde!
La frecuente asistencia de un encanto
acuña en mi recuerdo una predilecta eficacia
ese arrabal cansado,
y es habitual evocación de mis horas
la vista de sus calles;
The article ‘una‘ was crossed out, and on the right margin Borges had changed it for the preposition ‘con‘. So, “acuña en mi recuerdo una predilecta eficacia” became “acuña en mi recuerdo con predilecta eficacia.” Borges used to do this: he would correct his verses as he gave them away, especially in this edition, which had been published with mistakes due to the rush. (Many copies of the first edition show the same hand-written correction.)
“The edition is good,” said Casares. “It was stolen from the National Library. Who gave it to you?”
Pastore mentioned Guillermo Billinghurst, a “mediocre bookbinder,” according to Casares, who used to bring him Borges’ first editions of dubious origins: a client had left it with him for binding, he would say every time, and sometimes they did not return to pick it up.
“I am going to report this robbery to the National Library,” Casares warned Pastore. “You do whatever you want.”
He saw him leave with the stolen book. But he remained “deeply convinced that he was not going to buy it.”
Fourteen years later, Casares bitterly regrets that outburst of civic responsibility. What happened afterwards, he told me, taught him that in Argentina it is better to keep your mouth shut.
Before filing the report, Casares called Juan Manuel Peña to warn him that the book from his collection had been stolen from the library. Instead of thanking him, Peña begged him to hide it: the Library still had not paid him for the books, which he had already delivered, and a scandal could ruin his chances of getting the money. Casares, determined to do the right thing, talked to Alejandro Vaccaro, the Borges specialist, who understood the seriousness of the matter and offered to go with him to explain it to the director of the National Library, Francisco Delich.
They got an audience, but, just like Peña, the director seemed to not take the news very well. Firstly, as both Casares and Vaccaro told me, Delich and a couple of employees who participated in the meeting denied that the copy had been stolen – it was, they said, in an itinerant exhibition about Borges stuck in Portugal and with “problems” returning to the country (a Library employee confirmed much later that the Argentine government took three years to repatriate that exhibition). Also, the Library did not have a full description of this copy, which it had bought just before sending it out to the exhibition, which made it hard to confirm it was the same copy.
Exasperated, Casares demanded the police be told and that they raid Billinghurst’s apartment immediately and recover the book. Far from it, the employees only went as far as initiating an internal inquiry.
The years went by. Billinghurst, the alleged possessor of the stolen book, had already died of liver disease by the time the internal inquiry finally confirmed that the copy of ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’ had, in effect, disappeared. Casares was summoned to the Ministry of Education to ratify his theft report. The new bureaucrat that took his statement warned him: “Be aware that, if you ratify this, it will get to the federal justice.”
And so it did. The officers at the federal court of judge Jorge Ballestero, used to dealing with cases of illegal drugs or government corruption, did not quite understand the gravity of the matter: it was not a manuscript by Borges or a unique copy -it was a printed book, one of many that were in circulation. And even if it had Borges’ handwriting on its first page and in a poem in the middle, what was, really, its importance? The Library itself had another copy of the same book, and the same edition.
(Fourteen years later, when I called the judge, now promoted to the Court of Appeals, to ask about that file and find out how the case had ended, he said he could not remember.)
Illegal trafficking in cultural property, which includes books and antique manuscripts, is considered to be the third in the world in terms of volume, behind arms and drugs. According to some estimates repeated in international conferences on the subject, it is worth something like US$6bn per year. Interpol, which had to create a specific office to deal with this crime two decades ago, says that it is impossible to confirm this estimate. It is known that London is the main centre of illegal trafficking of rare books and manuscripts, and that the United States is its main destination, where there seems to be enough people willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions, for a rare book that no one else has and only they can enjoy. It is also known that these people rarely commit the crime in person: normally, they buy from the thief. According to professor Travis McDade, an expert at the University of Illinois Law School, many do it because owning a unique symbol of universal culture makes some people feel special, just as unique: “Never underestimate people’s necessity to be considered intelligent.” Nobody knows how many valuable books have been stolen and bought in the black market, and every now and then a scandal breaks which proves it. In 2003, for example, it was found that an employee at the Royal Library in Denmark had stolen, in the previous 30 years, over 3,000 unique books, amongst them manuscripts by Immanuel Kant, 15th century atlases, and first editions of Martin Luther. The case only became public because, after the employee died, his widow tried to sell the collection to auction house Christie’s. The value of these books and manuscripts does not only lie on the fact that a millionaire might be willing to pay for them, but, as both buyers and traffickers understand, on its value for universal culture.
When he was called to give a statement about his report, four years after filing it, Casares was unable to make the employees at the Argentine court understand this.
No one seemed to care, apparently, about the civic aspect of the matter either.
The National Library is as old as Argentina: it was created in 1810, together with the first national government, and its first director was Mariano Moreno, one of the greatest national heroes and founder of the country’s first newspaper. It was, at some point, something to be proud of. But towards 1960 it became clear that the building that housed it no longer had the room or the conditions to accommodate the collections. Books would get lost or ruined.
The issue became a matter of public debate and, in order to address it, president Arturo Frondizi issued a decree purchasing three hectares in the neighbourhood of Palermo and put out a tender to construct a new building. The winner was architect Clorindo Testa, with an ambitious brutalist project of reinforced concrete structures, at style that flourished in the ’50s.
Construction, however, began 11 years later. Then it stopped. Then it started again. Then it stopped again. Million-peso budgets were successively assigned to it, but were never spent. It ended up becoming a symbol of the corruption and lack of interest in culture of the successive military dictatorships that ruled the country. Only at the beginning of the ’90s, and thanks to a massive loan by the Spanish government that helped to finalise a work planned 30 years earlier, president Carlos Menem ordered that books and collections be moved and inaugurated the building.
Borges’ name is inextricably linked to the history of the Library. He was its director for 18 years, between 1955 and 1973. Books were already disappearing then. When asked whether this was true, in typical fashion he replied: “I can’t tell whether books are being stolen because I’m blind.” It was under his mandate that the move was decided.
Deborah Yanover, owner of Librería Norte in Buenos Aires, told me that his father, the late Héctor Yanover, founder of the bookshop and director of the Library between 1994 and 1996, used to frequently receive different characters in his shop which offered him first editions and manuscripts… stolen from the Library of which he was a director. According to Horacio Salas, another former director, the library lost some 200,000 books in the last few decades.
Out of how many? No one knows. That is right: no one knows how many books there are, or should be, in Argentina’s National Library. Horacio González, its current director, confessed that the Library “has approximately a million books and some four million other pieces (newspapers, music sheets, records, photographs, etc.). I don’t have exact numbers and at this point it is very difficult to have them.”
A recent journalistic report noted that, “after the user returns the book, it goes down the lift and it is put back where it belongs. However, if for some reason it is placed in the wrong spot, there is the risk the book could get lost for years, decades, or even forever.”
This problem is not exclusive to the Library. State archives are woefully neglected: a naval officer opened the door of a basement in the Navy building for me a few years ago, where they stored official documents from the first half of the 20th century; he found it had turned into a lake of wastewater in which boxes, papers, and rats floated. In 2001, an undersecretary at the Interior Ministry found by chance, whilst he was moving offices, a very valuable file with classified documents from the last dictatorship (1976-1983). The first thing he did with it was… to call me: maybe some of it would be useful for a book I was writing? I could take whatever I wanted. Only after I wrote about it on the newspaper I was working for was he forced to hand in the file to the office in charge of processing it. Recently, in November 2013, another massive file with 1,500 secret records from the last dictatorship appeared at the Defence Ministry when a janitor decided to… clean. At the newspaper section of the Congress Library, it is common to find that pages have been ripped off and articles and photographs cut out from the newspaper and magazine collections. Or to ask for a book that one looked up in the past and be told that the book has never been in the Library. That is, that it is no longer there.
In mid-2003, whilst the investigation languished in court, Pastore called Casares again, this time not to show him but to ask him for a copy of the first edition of ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’. He was preparing a collection of Borges’ first editions and other treasures, for which he expected to get a record price: US$4m. It would be auctioned at Bloomsbury Book Auctions, in London.
Casares did not have one and he could not get one from the collectors he called: those who had it, did not want to sell. Instead, he sold Pastore one of the facsimiles he had made ten years earlier from the stolen Peña collection book for little money and, for US$10,000, a copy of a first edition of another Borges book, ‘Luna de enfrente’ (poems, 1925). Pastore also asked him to write the prologue for the auction catalogue.
On 28th October 2003, almost a month before the date scheduled for the auction, the catalogue made it into Alejandro Vaccaro’s hands, the collector that had accompanied Casares to file the report on the theft of the book at the National Library. Going through the pages in search of something to buy, Vaccaro found the description of the copy of ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’ included in the offer: it was an exact match of the copy stolen from the Library. There was the dedication to Nydia Lamarque (her name had been erased, but the closing was still there: “Sincerely, Jorge Luis Borges”) and the correction on ‘Villa Urquiza’. Also, the summary mentioned that the copy had belonged to the Peña collection. There were no doubts: it was the stolen copy!
What Vaccaro did not understand was why Casares, who had reported the crime as soon as it had happened, had now turned into an accomplice.
He called a journalist from La Nación and the following day everyone knew that a valuable book stolen from the National Library would be auctioned off in London for £22,000. It was an international scandal and an embarrassment for the country.
Pastore and the organiser of the auction, an Italian man called Massimo De Caro, claimed there was an error in the catalogue. Casares explained that the catalogue writer, a Bolivian named Molina, had the facsimile before him as he wrote it. Hence the mistake. But the book offered in the auction was not the one from the Peña collection.
But no one believed them. They had to remove the book from the auction, which turned out to be a failure. Pastore and De Caro offered to take the book to the Library so that its new director, Horacio Salas, could confirm it was not the stolen copy. Salas accepted, but before receiving them he called judge Ballestero, who was in charge of the by then dormant case, and he in turn alerted Interpol. When Pastore and De Caro walked into the director’s office, they found the police officers, who took the book and put it under custody of the court.
Casares, now suspected of having taken part in the crime whose investigation he himself had initiated, testified before the judge that the book was not the same one that had been stolen from the Library or the facsimile he had sold to Pastore. It was, he explained, a third book, similar to the other two: it had the correction on the fifth line of the poem ‘Villa Urquiza’, the dedication with the erased name, and the closing: “Sincerely, Jorge Luis Borges.” But Casares pointed out that the stroke on the correction line in the poem was different, and that, unlike the stolen copy, this one was bound and had the original cover.
Laura Rosato, in charge of the Borges collection at the National Library, testified in court that she could not tell whether it was the stolen copy or not, because she had barely seen it for a few minutes when she opened the boxes of the Peña collection. The book had not even been stamped and properly registered as belonging to the Library.
Vaccaro denounced Casares as a liar and even showed up at the entrance of the yearly antique book fair to hand out flyers against “book thieves.” The issue was settled when Juan Manuel Peña assured that, indeed, that was the book that had belonged to his collection and that he had sold to the Library.
In mid-September 2007, eight years after its disappearance, the judge ruled that the book was indeed the stolen copy and, without pointing blame or imposing punishments, ordered that it be returned to the Library. And with that, the investigation was closed.
“Borges returns to the National Library,” celebrated La Nación.
“It was proven that the book belonged to the National Library,” announced Horacio González, the Library’s new director (the fifth since the theft). “Judge Ballestero acted with precision and fervour, to make a play on words with the title of Borges’ work, and it will be made available to the public shortly.”
Three weeks before the ruling, a Uruguayan man named César Gómez Rivero, a Buenos Aires-based collector of antique books and maps, was looking up some books from the 15th century at Spain’s National Library, in Madrid. Without anyone noticing, he used a razor blade to cut out 19 unique prints, including two world maps from Claudius Ptolemy’s ‘Cosmographia’ printed in 1482 and considered some of the most beautiful woodcuts of early world maps; the Magellan Strait Reconnaissance, a map drawn by two Spanish sailors, the García Nodal brothers, after a 1618 expedition, printed in 1621; the Teperata Antipodum Nobis Incognita sketch map, by medieval geographer Macrobius, printed in 1485; the Media Nox woodcut, the illustration of an instrument created to solve astrological and astronomical problems which is part of cartographer, mathematician, and astronomer Petrus Apianus’ ‘Cosmographia’, printed in 1529; and hunting scenes from ‘Ballestería y Montería’ by Alonso Martínez de Espinar, from 1644, very sought after by collectors of hunting books. He rolled them up carefully and hid them under his clothes. That same night he boarded a plane to Buenos Aires. It was the biggest robbery against the Spanish Library and its director, writer Rosa Regás, was forced to resign when, days later, it became public.
Interpol traced the stolen prints – Ptolemy’s map alone was valued at €110,000 – all the way to… Pastore. Imago Mundi, his antique bookshop, had the stolen prints on its catalogue. He had already sold some of them, over the internet, to clients in Australia and the United States. Pastore received a light sentence, consisting of community service, but the international scandal was such that, before the antique booksellers’ association could expel him, Pastore closed down Imago Mundi.
His partner in the London auction, Massimo De Caro, was caught a few years later in Italy. In April 2012, it was revealed that at least 1,500 very valuable books from the 15th to 17th centuries (and maybe as many as 4,000), had disappeared from the Girolamini library in Naples, one of Italy’s oldest. De Caro had been the library’s director for 11 months, and the police found boxes with hundreds of stolen books at his house. From prison, De Caro confessed to his crime and has since cooperated with the police in order to recover the stolen copies, which had been sold for millions of dollars in the international market. Pastore’s name, as De Caro’s Argentine contact, is also mentioned in this investigation.
Six years on from when ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’ was returned to the Library, and 14 from the beginning of this story, Casares still bitterly regrets the damage caused to his reputation, which has never been repaired. To remember the case that ended up with him as one of the accused, he told me, depressed him. He preferred not to.
He then proceeded to offer an infinite number of details, the facsimile, and the catalogue from the London auction. He assured me once more that the book returned to the Library was not the stolen one. Seeing my scepticism, he insisted: in the correction of the ‘Villa Urquiza’ poem, the line that Borges drew between the crossed out article and the proposition that replaced it (from “una” to “con“) was of a different length and inclination in the two copies. It was not necessary to have the original copy to compare; the facsimile was enough. He told me he had handed it to the court to make the comparison, but they did not do it due to ignorance or lack of interest.
His explanation was, at best, improbable: if he had seen the stolen book in Pastore’s hand, it was clear that Pastore had kept it. His background, and that of his partner De Caro, seemed to confirm it. Also, Peña, the original owner, had recognised it as his own. As if this was not enough, Vaccaro, the other complainant, had assured me that a few years after the scandal over the failed auction, Pastore had lunch with him and told him “the truth”: the book was, in effect, the one stolen from the library, but it had been bought in good faith from John Wronosky, an antique bookseller from Boston who offers Borges manuscripts (whose authenticity has been called into question by some collectors) for up to half a million dollars.
As I was out of Buenos Aires for a few months, I asked a literature student to go to the Library, request the recovered copy, and send me a copy of the ‘Villa Urquiza’ page.
Surprisingly, after some toing and froing, they did not allow him to see it.
Were they hiding it?
I then wrote to the director, Horacio González: they were telling me the recovered book was not the one that had been stolen. Was this true?
To my surprise, González replied: “It is true. ‘Fervor de Buenos Aires’, first edition, is a recovered book that does not seem to be the one that was stolen.” Laura Rosato, in charge of the Borges collection, who was copied on the e-mail, confirmed it: it was, indeed, another book.
Where had this copy come from? What happened to the stolen one? No one knew.
“Next time someone comes to me with a stolen book,” said Casares bitterly, “I will just shut up.”
Translated by Celina Andreassi.