Traditions & Culture of Collecting Articles by and about Collectors, Librarians, and Booksellers
An Enquiry into the Crerar Library Affair Jennifer S. Larson
originally published in AB Bookman’s Weekly (January 22 and March 12, 1990)
[The shocking events involving massive thefts at the John Crerar Library that came to light in the early 1980s did not represent the only instance of an antiquarian bookseller being victimized in the wake of inept library supervision of collections. In the following article, Jennifer Larson, a rare book dealer and a frequent contributor to AB, seeks to set the record straight with regard to the role of the late Warren Howell, her former employer. —JLC]
A lot of nonsense has been written and spoken about Warren R. Howell, both in his lifetime and since his death in January 1984. Perhaps it is typical of human communication that the written portion has been almost entirely adulatory, while that of the private conversation has at times taken on a different flavor.
The many press notices about Warren Howell generally take the line that he was one of the world’s foremost antiquarian book dealers, universally respected and loved. We are told that he had a patrician, commanding presence, the finest international connections, and enjoyed an unquestioned reputation for integrity and expertise.
Howell was supposedly aloof to mere considerations of financial gain, and we read that he was equally welcoming and uniformly generous with his encyclopedic book knowledge in his dealings with the wealthy dilettante, the informed collector, the wary librarian, the ignorant browser, the greedy investor, the novice staff member, the rival dealer, and the impecunious scholar.
Anybody who had any idea at all of what Warren Howell was about knows that much of this is only partly true. In fact, the ruling passion of his life was pure love of fine and rare books. It was not pride that motivated him, and it was definitely not avarice. If anything at all set him apart from his colleagues, it was the intensity of his appreciation of great books, his terrific drive to possess them, and his remarkable ability to instill in others his magnificent enthusiasm.
This passion for books got him into trouble from time to time. When, for instance, he had concluded (sometimes on the basis of just one ill-considered question) that someone was not genuinely interested in or worthy of a particular book, or of his expertise, he could be very cutting. People tend not to forget or forgive such treatment.
Warren Howell’s love of books, however, never got him into more trouble than when he entered into an agreement with a man known to him as Joseph Putnam of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to sell on consignment, over a period of time that turned out to be six years, a truly wonderful group of books. All of these books, valued at approximately $330,000, were later found to have been stolen from the John Crerar Library of Chicago. For this reason, questions have arisen, and persist, as to the nature of Warren Howell’s involvement in the affair.
The first contact with Putnam took place by mail, in September 1976, in the form of a letter to Howell offering 40 “rare old books” important in the history of science and medicine. The letter stated that recent financial difficulties necessitated the sale. Photocopies of the title pages of 33 of the books were enclosed, including one guaranteed to make any bookman’s heart beat faster: William Harvey’s Exercitatio Anatomica de Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus, Frankfurt, 1628.
According to Putnam’s 1984 deposition, essentially identical letters offering these books were sent at about the same time to Warren Howell, Jake Zeitlin, Harry Levinson, Sotheby’s, and possibly several others. Putnam stated that Sotheby’s responded in detail to his offer, with suggested price ranges for various items. We do not know who else responded, or why Howell was chosen to handle the books.
Warren Howell agreed by telephone with Jake Zeitlin to act jointly, should an agreement be reached with Putnam. This was a regular practice of the two dealers; in fact they had been partners in another copy of the Harvey only six years before (which sold in 1970 for $58,000).
Arrangements, complicated by Putnam’s lack of a listed telephone number, were eventually made for Howell, en route to Europe, to rendezvous with Putnam in a hotel near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport.
The two men reached an agreement whereby the books would be consigned to John Howell–Books with a 25 percent commission to Howell; Howell would take, possession immediately; and a cash (i.e., currency) advance in the amount of $5,000 against the anticipated proceeds was to be: paid immediately to Putnam, with the understanding that before the close of the year at least another $7,000 would be forthcoming, regardless of sales.
Since neither party was in his home city, an intermediary was used to facilitate the packing, shipping, and banking tasks. It is not unheard of for dealers to provide each other with such services, and in this case; Howell’s colleague and friend, Chicago rare book dealer Kenneth Nebenzahl extended the courtesy.
The books arrived in San Francisco and were meticulously scrutinized, as would have been any similar consignment. At the time, the firm’s chief cataloguer was Michael Horowitz, who had been employed at John Howell–Books for nine years, and had previously been a cataloguer at Sotheby’s and assistant curator of rare books at New York University. There are many who consider him among the most gifted and skillful cataloguers in the business, with a broad range of expertise and an intimate understanding of the everyday operations of the trade.
Also involved from the first was John R. (Jack) Collins, Ph.D., a medievalist and scholar of English literature, employed at John Howell–Books from 1975 to 1979. According to both of these experienced, sophisticated cataloguers, there was nothing particularly suspicious or sinister about the appearance or physical condition of the books, such as would raise a question as to the legitimacy of their appearance in the marketplace.
At issue would be evidence of the removal of bookplates, ownership stamps, signatures, and the like. These irregularities were to become one of the key points in the plaintiff’s case in the ensuing litigation. Such tampering with provenance is a familiar sight in the antiquarian book trade.
While some books stay where they are for centuries, the fate of others is to change hands almost continually. Dealers, of course, see more than their share of the latter. Tasteless and undistinguished bookplates far outnumber those that add to a book’s value — the former get removed. Libraries deaccession books and their stamps and other markings are effaced. When a family library is dispersed, often the former owners themselves remove any trace of their identity. All of this may be unfortunate, but it is nevertheless customary.
The Howell staff noticed effaced markings and evidence of bookplate removal and called attention to them in cataloguing the books: “evidence of erased signature on title” (Copernicus); “restoration to lower corner of the title (barely affecting plate)” (Vesalius); “evidence of erasure on first leaf” (Bagellardus). It is clear that John Howell–Books made no attempt to hide the fact of these alterations. Not all the books showed evidence of having had marking removed, and no consistent pattern was perceived in those that did.
Putnam told Howell that most of the books came from the library of Dr. Bruno Menck (or von Menck) of Basedow-bei Melchink, East Germany, who was the father of Putnam’s first wife. Putnam met his future wife while stationed in Germany after World War II. According to Putnam’s deposition, he also told Howell that other of the books were bought by him personally “at various book stores throughout Europe while I was stationed there in the Army.” He said that he was in Europe for 14 months, including all of 1953.
The Nazis supposedly killed Dr. Menck at the close of the war. Putnam had remove the books to America in the chaos of the postwar period. Later, some of the staff at John Howell–Books gathered the impression that either Menck or his associate Count von Hahn, had been friendly with Hermann Göring; thus the books were associated with the upheaval and dispersal of great collections for which Göring was (among much worse things) notorious.
The Putnam books seemed to be spoils of war, possibly removed from Germany under something of a cloud. The removal of marks of previous ownership could have been carried out by Putnam in recognition of this unpleasant provenance. According to Putnam’s deposition, Howell remarked to him over lunch in San Francisco (this must have been in 1977 or 1978) on the cleanness — meaning the lack of evidence of provenance — of the books, and asked Putnam whether he had done that. Putnam acknowledged to Howell that he had.
Both Michael Horowitz and Jack Collins remember long discussions in the bookshop, at this initial stage, about the provenance of the Putnam books. There was uneasiness all around about the situation. I believe these feelings were partly overcome by a desire to which all who love books are vulnerable: to do the right thing by the books; to get them out of unworthy hands; to research them; to restore them; to catalogue them; and to put them in the hands of someone who will properly appreciate them.
The discovery of an unknown copy of Harvey’s De Motu Cordis is a great event in the book world; that it might be part of an important collection not generally known in the trade is the stuff that antiquarian booksellers’ dreams are made of. Some have felt that anyone who would believe such a story would believe in the tooth fairy; actually, the truth, as it eventually became known to some, is a lot more unbelievable.
In his June 1983 deposition, Howell indicated that Putnam did not reveal to him in advance precisely what other items remained in the library, nor was Howell permitted to view the collection in situ. Putnam said that the explanation he gave to Howell for this was that most of the books had never been unpacked since their removal to America; there were still many books stored in cartons in his attic. This is not typical; yet how many booksellers would turn down a deal on these grounds alone? ; Not far from anybody’s mind was the realization that if John Howell–Books had declined such an opportunity, someone else would surely have taken it up.
The concern was not that the Putnam books had been recently stolen from an institutional or private collection, but that they had possibly been illegally or inappropriately removed from Germany 25 years earlier. Perhaps Putnam was not really his father-in-law’s heir. Perhaps the books were not really all from that one collection; perhaps some had been plundered from other sources.
A proper and straightforward course of action in such a case would be to thoroughly research the books and broadcast their availability as widely as possible. Anyone with a claim to them could then respond; and thus, if the books did not belong to Putnam, they would by this means (and in fact possibly only through such means) be) restored to their legitimate owners.
It is true that Warren Howell did nothing to verify Putnam’s story until information communicated six years later clearly contradicted the purported provenance of one of the books. At that time, late in 1982, Howell wrote to a European colleague, making inquiry into the collecting habits of Dr. Menck of Basedow-bei-Melchink, who died during the war.
He didn’t exist!
Is there something sinister in the fact that Warren Howell did not make this inquiry in 1976? It was in his own best interest to do so. One does not get away with publicly selling stolen books of the rarity and importance of the Harvey (and later, the Copernicus and the Vesalius).
I believe that Warren Howell was simply satisfied with Putnam’s story, and that was that. There are people who are trusting, who take people at their word, and whose preference it is to think the best of others and to have the highest expectations of them. This is an attractive characteristic; a conscious choice representing, actually, a small victory of the human spirit over cruelty and chaos.
Warren Howell was this type of person. He was always offending people who misinterpreted his demanding expectations of them for arrogance; in fact it was a compliment. Those inclined towards cynicism will not be able to understand this trait. Of course, in the decision of whether or not to believe Joseph Putnam (if indeed such a question ever framed itself in Warren Howell’s mind), it cannot have hurt that he very much wanted to believe him.
In January 1977, Putnam came to San Francisco to collect some money and dangle a second consignment of books. A John Howell—Books check in the amount of $12,000, payable to a bank teller, was cashed and the funds turned over to Putnam. According to John Howell—Books’ records, this figure represented an advance on items which had not yet been sold by Howell. A bookseller greedy for money would not dream of such folly, such financial lunacy; a bookseller passionate about handling great books would.
Michael Horowitz and Jack Collins lunched with Putnam during his second visit to John Howell–Books in March 1977. While both recall that the whole situation was an unusual one, they felt that its bizarre aspects were adequately accounted for by Putnam’s story of the dramatic recent history of the library.
Putnam displayed the sort of superficial book knowledge consistent with his putative position as the lucky heir to a great treasure. Michael Horowitz recalled that “Putnam never presented himself as a serious collector. He had educated himself to a certain degree about the books and took a certain pride in them. It was borderline, but convincing enough.”
On another occasion, Jack Collins lunched alone with Putnam, who suggested that the two of them should go to Poland to look for rare books to sell. While the proposal was not taken seriously, it did reinforce the notion that Putnam was familiar with European sources for rare and valuable books. Putnam was of Polish descent, and it was learned at some point that his real name was Joseph Putna, not Putnam, but that he now preferred to use an Anglicized form of the name.
There was another knowledgeable bookperson working at John Howell–Books at the time, who found himself in the difficult position of having an exceedingly unpleasant visceral reaction to meeting Putnam in January 1977. It was intuitive—not the sort of thing one can be effective in communicating. David Forbes didn’t; and if he had, it would not likely have done any good. Warren Howell was by nature, by character, by inclination incapable of such a reaction.
Putnam’s persistent demands for payment in cash, which over the years relented, have been regarded by some as evidence that something was fundamentally wrong with the transaction, and that Howell should have known it. Certainly, cash transactions in the thousands of dollars are unusual even at the highest echelons of the trade, and are not warmly regarded by accountants and bookkeepers. Kenneth Nebenzahl testified that after several incidents of providing cash to Putnam on behalf of Howell, his accountant’s objections prevailed, and he refused to continue to oblige.
Sally Zaiser, Treasurer of John Howell–Books, also objected to payments in cash on general principles. She was able to institute some procedures which improved the situation with regard to internal recordkeeping. Sometimes John Howell–Books generated checks payable to Putnam. He immediately cashed them in San Francisco, his identity vouched for at the bank by Sally I Zaiser. Other times payments were cabled to him via Western Union.
The reason Putnam said he wanted currency in January 1977, recalls Sally Zaiser, was to make a down payment on a real estate investment in Southern California, in which cash would be required of him. In later transactions, he stated that the proceeds had to be divided among several family members, and cash made this distribution easier for him. In all of the later transactions, Putnam accepted regular checks by mail.
The second consignment from Putnam arrived in March 1977. At this point, the total number of books involved was approaching 100. In June 1977 a third shipment arrived. These first three groups had been coded, for accounting purposes, PZH (meaning Putnam-Zeitlin-Howell) I, II, and III. The remaining five consignments of books from Putnam were accepted and sold by John Howell–Books alone, without the joint interest of Zeitlin & Ver Brugge.
In a statement written in 1983 Warren Howell recalled, “I believe that Jake and I participated jointly only on the first 100 Putnam books, as various commitments, and Putnam’s requiring advance payments, had caused Jake to become less interested in continuing on a joint basis.”
One might speculate that other factors also contributed to Jake Zeitlin’s decision. A commission of 25 percent is lower than standard in the antiquarian book trade, and in this case was further diminished by its division between the two booksellers. The amount of paperwork required for the transactions was enormous. In addition, it would seem likely that John Howell–Books did most of the cataloguing and sales, gathering to itself the prestige of handling such interesting material. When the commission is only 12.5 percent, with partial payments required in advance, the glory of handling the books must necessarily form a large part of the reward involved.
Some have speculated even further that Jake Zeitlin’s withdrawal must also have been occasioned by suspicions about the source of the books. In a recent letter, Josephine Zeitlin expressed her recollections of the affair, emphasizing, however, that she had only been viewing it from the sidelines: “Putnam sent a letter to several booksellers offering some books — very tempting ones — Jake didn’t pick it up but Warren did and asked Jake if he would care to come along. Jake agreed but all subsequent contacts with Putnam were made by Warren. I believe Jake participated in the first two deals. Then he said many times he told Warren that he thought he should drop out as the bookkeeping was too complicated. He never claimed to feel there was anything fishy about it at that time. As a matter of fact, I think he sold some of the books from Putnam after he had dropped out.”
The remaining five consignments from Putnam arrived at irregular intervals ranging from two to 20 months. The last shipment was received in November 1980. A total of 247 titles were consigned, ranging in price from $75 to $85,000. Payments from John Howell–Books to Joseph Putnam for 182 titles sold totaled $235,620.68 over the six-year period.
Most of the value resided in three great books: the aforementioned Harvey; a very desirable copy of Nicolaus Copernicus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (Nuremberg, 1543); and what was discovered through research by John Howell–Books’ staff to be an unrecorded variant of Andreas Vesalius, De Humani Corporis Fabrica (Basel, 1543).
Should the uneven quality of this purported German private collection have been perceived as anomalous? There were some stellar high spots, together with relatively unimportant books in obscure fields. Some were in superb condition and others were badly neglected.
Most problematic were several items received from Putnam that are not consistent with what one would expect of the acquisitions of a German collector who died in 1945: English translations, for example, and in two obviously impossible instances, American autograph letters dated 1951 and 1953. Putnam accounted for these by saying that he bought some items himself in Europe in 1953, and later made some acquisitions in America.
“Hindsight is so easy,” says Diana Hook, a cataloguer employed at John Howell Books from 1979 to its closing in 1984. She worked on three or four of the consignments received from Putnam. Her training in rare books was at the Columbia University Graduate School of Library Service, and she was’ responsible for John Howell–Books Catalogue 53, Science & Medicine, 1981, which offered many of the Putnam books. The catalogue received very wide distribution and the descriptions in it are up to the highest standards in the trade, thorough as to minute physical description and painstaking bibliographical research.
Can we say, as many have felt free to, that Warren Howell had a “need not to know,” or “closed his eyes for a moment,” that he was “incautious,” or harbored any kind of a suspicion, however dimly recognized, that something was wrong with these books from Putnam?
The big books, except for the Harvey, could not have been more publicly offered. Of the total of 247 titles consigned, 163 appeared in John Howell–Books’ published catalogues or lists. Given that these books could easily have been sold without fanfare, would not a dealer concerned that he might possibly be fencing stolen books have acted with a little more discretion?
For example, is it consistent with the allegation that Warren Howell “closed his eyes” that he would physically send the Copernicus De revolutionibus to Owen Gingerich, professor of astronomy and history of science at Harvard University and the world authority on that book, for his expert opinion? Professor Gingerich had embarked in 1970 on a revision of the 1943 census of 70 copies of the first edition, paying great scholarly attention to annotated copies throughout the world and in the process more than tripling the number of located copies of the book.
Howell stated in 1983 that “The Putnam Copernicus had been researched carefully…even to the extent of checking this copy against the census being compiled by Prof. Owen Gingerich. At the time, Prof. Gingerich did not associate our copy with the Crerar copy. He had seen the Crerar copy 10 or 11 years before we sent him the Putnam copy for examination. As he made no connections between the two copies at that time, we had never believed this copy to be suspect in any way.”
The copy of De revolutionibus received from Putnam is distinctive in several aspects. In addition to the standard manuscript deletions and corrections prescribed by the Catholic Church which are found in approximately one copy in 12, the Putnam copy contains a series of earlier scientific marginal notes, primarily books I and IV, in an unidentified 16th century hand. Professor Gingerich supplied this information to John Howell–Books, who in turn communicated it openly offering the book for sale (at $60,000) in Catalogue 53. The condition of the copy in question is also remarkable: it is unusually tall and wide-margined, in its original limp vellum binding with the title hand-lettered on the spine and portions of the original ties still present. Far from trying to hide these facts, the binding is illustrated in Catalogue 53 in a full-page professional black and white photograph.
The manner in which the Vesalius was handled provides further evidence of the clarity of Warren Howell’s conscience. He sold it to a London dealer who returned it because it appeared to exhibit some typographical irregularities in the preliminary leaves not matching known copies of the first edition.
A tremendous amount of research by John Howell–Books staff ensued, and it was determined that the copy supplied by Putnam is a previously unrecorded variant, of which only two perfect (of five) copies were eventually located. John Howell–Books placed advertisements in AB Bookman’s Weekly and other journals soliciting communication from owners of copies of the Vesalius, and sent a detailed two-page questionnaire listing 12 points of issue to over 400 known or possible owners of the book all over the world, requesting them to compare their copies with the variant.
Warren Howell encouraged Michael Horowitz and Jack Collins to devote their time to the compilation of a census of the Vesalius and an announcement of the discovery of the variant for scholarly publication. The results of their research appeared in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol. 39, No. 2, April 1984. No one who received one of these questionnaires ever made a claim on the copy Howell was offering, or indicated that his copy could not be located.
No bleaker construction can be placed on Warren Howell’s actions with regard to the Copernicus and the Vesalius than that he was perhaps suspicious of the books and therefore exceeded what he might normally have done to ascertain their legitimacy. However, being very familiar with the John Howell–Books style, I see no reason to suppose that these actions represented anything other than business as usual.
The final shipment from Putnam arrived in November 1980, but by the fall of 1982 numerous books remained in stock. After several months of tiresome negotiation; between Putnam and Howell, in September Howell agreed to buy the remaining books and to make final payments on them by January 1983.
Instead, also in September, because of the expertise and persistence of a single scholar in pursuit of a unique book, the situation, both from the point of view of Warren Howell and the Crerar Library, at last became incontrovertibly exposed. Putnam later said of this one item, “Oh, that’s the book that caused all the problems, the Nicolas de Cusa.”
Professor Raymond Klibansky of McGill University has devoted a lifetime of study to the medieval philosopher Nicolas de Cusa. He first learned of the existence of the 15th-century manuscript in question through a comment on its appearance in a catalogue of antiquarian bookseller Jacques Rosenthal, published in the Münchener Neueste Nachrichten in 1928. In 1933, he learned that it had been sold in 1927 to the John Crerar Library in Chicago by E. P. Goldschmidt (who got it from Rosenthal). Klibansky stated that he obtained some photostats of the manuscript from the Library at that time. Later, he observed that the manuscript’s acquisition was noted in a Crerar Library publication in 1945.
Professor Klibansky visited the Library personally in 1948, and was informed that the manuscript could not only not be found; there was no record of its ever having been catalogued. Repeated further inquiries yielded nothing, despite the fact of the Library’s own published report of its acquisition and the photostats it had earlier supplied to Klibansky. Later he heard a rumor that persons unknown had offered the manuscript for sale in the early 1950s.
Professor Klibansky finally located the Nicolas de Cusa manuscript in the Staatsbibliothek Preussischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin. He learned that it had been acquired in 1978 from San Francisco rare book dealer Bernard Rosenthal, the grandson of Jacques Rosenthal.
Klibansky addressed a letter of inquiry into the manuscript’s provenance to Barney Rosenthal on December 7, 1981, in which he recounted in detail the facts of provenance stated above. Klibansky concluded in this letter that “It is clear that [the manuscript] disappeared from the John Crerar Library some time before 1948; it may have been sold or exchanged; anyhow no records are available.”
This letter was a response to a letter from Bernard Rosenthal of September 13, 1980; Klibansky begins with an apology for the tardiness of his reply. Rosenthal had, erroneously as it turned out, speculated in his letter that his source’s source for the Nicolas de Cusa manuscript was Adolph Sutro of San Francisco. Rosenthal acquired the manuscript from Warren Howell in May or June of 1978. He thought it might have come from Sutro for several reasons: certain markings in the book made him think it had been previously handled by a Rosenthal; Adolph Sutro bought many books from Ludwig Rosenthal; and Sutro’s library had been sold by Warren Howell. The Nicolas de Cusa manuscript was exhibited by Bernard Rosenthal at the London Book Fair, June 13-15, 1978, and sold to the Staatsbibliothek at that time. It is certainly regrettable that it took over a year for Professor Klibansky to respond to Barney Rosenthal’s letter; equally regrettable that Rosenthal did not conclude or suspect from Klibansky’s letter of December 1981 that the manuscript was stolen; and further unfortunate that Rosenthal did not communicate Klibansky’s information to Howell until September 1982, after Klibansky had finally written to Crerar, and Crerar had finally communicated with Rosenthal.
But then, the entire history of the systematic theft from the John Crerar Library of Chicago is one of failed opportunity combined with genuine incapacity to perceive that which would later appear, to those not caught up in the affair, self-evident.
The Crerar Library
The John Crerar Library, chartered in 1894 under the will of the Chicago industrialist whose name it bears, was a privately supported public library concentrating on advanced research materials in science, technology, and medicine. Its patrons were largely local students, faculty, and Chicago area private industry. The Library was a pioneer, second in the nation only to the Library of Congress, in the field of photoduplication service, expanding its user base by regularly responding to requests for scientific and technical photocopies from researchers all over the world.
In 1946 the Crerar established Research Information Service, described as “probably the first library-research-for-a-fee arrangement in the country,” making photocopies, abstracts, indices, bibliographies, state-of-the-art surveys, and other research available by contract to government agencies and corporations.
In 1953, Crerar assumed responsibility for the Special Libraries Association Translations Pool, now known as the National Translation Center, to act as a central clearinghouse on the availability of some 350,000 unpublished translations into English of scientific and technical information held at Crerar, plus 650,000 others at cooperating institutions worldwide. For many years the Crerar Library was housed in its own building at Michigan Avenue and Randolph Street in downtown Chicago. In 1962 the collections were transferred to the library of the Illinois Institute of Technology, where both libraries then shared the same facilities.
Everyone acknowledges that funds had not been adequate for quite some time at at the Crerar Library to do all that was necessary and desirable to maintain the collections and promote their use. William Budington, Executive Director and Librarian at the Crerar since 1969 (and employed there since 1952), estimated the size of the overall collection at 600,000 volumes, and that of the rare book collection, which was housed in a separate locked stack area with access prohibited to all but designated staff, at 27,000 volumes.
“Use of the rare book collection would constitute, I would say, less than half of one percent of the entire use of the library materials,” Budington recalled. No rare book acquisitions had been made since 1968, nor was anyone on the staff trained in the management of special collections. No one read the catalogues antiquarian booksellers sent to the Library. It had long ago canceled its subscription to AB Bookman’s Weekly as a cost-cutting measure. There was no plan for cataloguing uncatalogued rare materials, and many books actually remained in boxes on the floor of the rare book vault, never unpacked from the move in 1962. The system of organization within the vault was eccentric, and, due to lack of space elsewhere, 15-20 percent of the vault was given over to non-rare and circulating materials.
Security problems in connection with the rare book collection were brought to Budington’s attention as early as 1977, when he was informed that Delbert Wilson, a Library employee for over 40 years, had given Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Putna, regular users of the Library, unauthorized access to the vault. Putnam later testified that “just about everybody” on the Crerar staff knew that he had regular access to the vault, including, besides Wilson, an unnamed black woman and Jessie Sheldon, who was Associate Librarian and second in authority to Budington. Sheldon denied this allegation under oath.
Counsel for John Howell–Books, Lawrence Jordan, elicited an acknowledgement from Budington that staff member Mrs. Seals had known of Putnam’s access, but he denied that Ethel Larkin and Charlene Jones also had such knowledge. According to testimony, Budington reprimanded Wilson in 1977 and ordered him to discontinue allowing Putnam access to the vault. Wilson did not comply.
Later, another employee discussed this access with Wilson, who said that there was no cause for concern. Delbert Wilson died in the fall of 1980, a date which roughly coincides with the last of the shipments of books from Putnam to Howell.
In mid-1978, Budington testified, he became aware that the Crerar Library copy of William Harvey’s De Motu Cordis (which, despite his lack of knowledge of rare materials, he did know to be a very valuable book) was not in its proper place in the rare-book vault. The staff were consulted and records checked to see if restoration or some other unusual procedure was the cause. He instituted a systematic search, hampered by the byzantine arrangement of the vault. Several weekends and odd hours during the day were devoted to the task. “We went through the vault with a fine-tooth comb,” Budington said, without locating the book; yet he did not then, or for years to come, believe it to be stolen.
Anyone who works with books has had the experience of having a misplaced item turn up unexpectedly. I do not doubt that there must have been tremendous resistance to the idea that a valuable book had been stolen from Crerar. One need only recall the Nicolas de Cusa episode to understand why. Although Professor Klibansky’s reasonable conclusion was that the manuscript must have been deaccessioned prior to 1948, the confessed thief has stated that he could not have taken it from the Crerar Library before 1975. It seems to have been there in the vault all along, uncatalogued in a box on the floor. This is bad enough; worse is that in 1948 and subsequently, nothing effective was done either to locate the manuscript or to declare it missing.
No one unfamiliar with the Crerar’s (one hopes) unique level of nonchalance regarding its rare-book collections can really understand the lack of control they had over their materials, and therefore the reluctance they would naturally have to arrive at an unpleasant conclusion such as, “This very valuable book is gone.”
The proposition that Crerar did not immediately know that it had a problem may seem as incredible to some as the notion that Warren Howell did not knowingly sell stolen books. The fact is, however, that if the Crerar suspected the Harvey stolen in 1978, they certainly already had a prime suspect in Putnam, yet he was not kept out of the vault; nor were any other actions taken to prevent repetitions of the crime, to determine the extent of the loss, or to recover the property.
We know that Putnam continued to enjoy unchecked access to the rare-book vault, and continued to steal after 1978, by his own admission and by the fact that major items, most notably the Copernicus, exhibited by Crerar November 1978 through January 1979, were subsequently stolen by Putnam using exactly the same technique as he had with the Harvey.
Putnam simply was let into the vault with his large briefcase by Wilson or, he testified, on several occasions, by one of several other staff members. He was left alone in the vault, and selected the books he wanted to steal. He sealed them in envelopes as though they were finished projects ready to be mailed, and presented them as such for inspection by the security guard at the front door, whose checking could be relied upon to be cursory. He also claimed that he had on occasion been allowed to check out noncirculating rare materials, because he had found fault with the Library’s photoduplication service; and that in one instance he had nearly gotten into big trouble for attempting to return a rare book that he had actually never checked out.
Despite later protestations to the contrary, a pattern must have been beginning to make itself known to those at Crerar at around this time. The 1978-79 Crerar exhibition, Science Through the Ages, of nearly 100 high spots in science, medicine and technology, not only excluded their missing Harvey — there was no Vesalius on display.
They must have looked for this great book in July 1978, when preparations for the exhibit were being made. Budington testified that it was in late 1980 or early 1981 that he informed Oliver Tuthill, President of the Crerar Board of Trustees, that the Harvey could not, after diligent search, be located. It was probably well into 1981, since the minutes of the April 13, 1981, Board meeting state that the President had “very recently learned that a significant rare item, Harvey’s De Motu Cordis, can’t be found.”
Actually, there certainly was awareness by this time of a much larger problem. The minutes of the April 13, 1981, Board meeting also reflect that the President “informed Mr. Budington that due to the fact that we have several hundred thousand books less than we thought we had, and that we didn’t know what the status is of the rare book collection, the Board had placed him on probation. The President further stated that the Board was greatly concerned and most critical of the security practices that had been followed regarding the rare book collection.” The vault was ordered closed and all keys transferred to the President.
The Crerar Library did not, at this point or later, take any of the steps that had been recently developed by joint committees of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the American Library Association, advising victims of theft as to appropriate courses of action to alert the trade to their loss. The Harvey had been gone at least three years by that time; they must have known that the Vesalius had been gone nearly as long; and the simplest checking would have revealed that many other valuable books were also not in place.
According to Budington’s predecessor Herman Heckle, it was known at an early stage that the first English edition of the Harvey was also missing; allegedly’ Budington himself told Henkle that both the first edition and the English translation were probably stolen.
The Crerar Library did not respond to the Howell questionnaire on the Vesalius, which was sent directly to them, or to the 1981 John Howell–Books Catalogue 53 offering a Vesalius. That catalogue also offered them their own distinctive copy of the Copernicus, fully described and illustrated, together with at least 61 additional items, valued at $218,850, which had been stolen from them. The sale of all of these books could have been prevented with a single telephone call.
Even if the Howell catalogue and the Vesalius questionnaire were not noticed by the Library, it would have been prudent, given the tenor of the April 13 Board meeting, to contact an antiquarian bookseller specializing in the history of science and medicine, or a rare book librarian actively acquiring in that field. Such a simple step would certainly have arrested the fraud, and reduced its total dollar value by two-thirds.
Had the Crerar Library in 1981 been an entity with a separate identity and a future as such, perhaps the Board would have acted differently. The Crerar had, however, been in negotiation with the University of Chicago since the late 1970s to develop the terms of an arrangement “to provide for the establishment of a new research library on the campus of the University [of Chicago] which will be devoted to the fields of science, medicine and technology, which will consist of a consolidation of the Crerar and University collections in these fields, which will be known as ’the John Crerar Librar’ and which will be located in a new building having the same name.”
The agreement was signed at the Crerar Board meeting of April 13, 1981—the same meeting at which the vault was closed and the Librarian placed on probation. All Crerar assets (excepting $300,000 to fund the John Crerar Foundation), including approximately 700,000 volumes and $11 million, were conveyed to the University of Chicago. Ground was broken for the handsome new building on October 4, 1982; the dedication took place November 1, 1984. In the midst of all this activity, what was being done about the missing books?
Whatever cautious, reluctant efforts were under way by Crerar staff to determine what exactly was and was not in the rare book vault were abandoned because of the transfer. The late Robert Rosenthal, longtime Curator of Special Collections at the University of Chicago, testified to the steps taken by his staff, beginning immediately after the April 1981 meeting: the vault’s lock was to be changed; all non-rare materials were to be removed; the rare books were to be “stabilized,” meaning each item was to receive a numbered slip of paper, so as “to know that we as of a certain date knew the number of items in that room”; each title page was photocopied with its numbered slip; and finally the titles were checked against a shelf list of the rare book collection. Because a separate shelf list did not exist, one had to be created from that of the general collection.
The process took nearly two years, Rosenthal testified, and the result, in December 1982, was a list of 370 missing volumes. By the spring of 1983, they had identified more than 600 books and manuscripts missing from the Library’s rare book collection.
While the University of Chicago inventory was in progress, however, others were not idle. It has already been noted that Professor Klibansky was trying to trace the Nicolas de Cusa manuscript. Bernard Rosenthal wrote to him in September 1980; he belatedly answered in December 1981; Klibansky wrote to Budington on July 29, 1982; Budington consulted with Robert Rosenthal, who on August 13 drafted a query to Bernard Rosenthal one month later, on September 13; and on September 23 Barney Rosenthal responded: “I have indeed sold the manuscript to the Staatsbibliothek after having acquired it from an antiquarian bookseller whose standing and reputation cannot be doubted.”
Bernard Rosenthal testified that in September he sent a copy of Budington’s letter to Warren Howell. To Rosenthal’s amazement, he received no response of any kind from the Crerar Library to his letter, quoted above. On September 28, Howell wrote to Putnam, demanding more specific information on the provenance of the manuscript. Budington sent a copy of Barney Rosenthal’s response to Robert Rosenthal with a covering letter: “This apparently closes out our mystery except to note that despite the lines in the Bay history [the 1945, publication mentioning the acquisition of the Nicolas de Cusa manuscript], we have found no record of purchase, payment,. accessioning or actual addition to the collection. It has been said that such ’purchases’ were, in fact, diverted to other recipients from time to time.” One can only guess as to the meaning of the final sentence.
Bernard Rosenthal finally heard from the Crerar Library, by telephone, at home, on Sunday, December 12, 1982. Kenneth Nebenzahl, a Crerar trustee since 1976 and, ironically, the antiquarian bookseller who had arranged for the initial consignment to be shipped to Howell and had on several occasions given Putnam cash on behalf of Howell, made the contact.
Nebenzahl had a purpose in calling Rosenthal at home: he wanted very much to know the source of the Nicolas de Cusa manuscript and he felt he would be more successful with a personal call than with a formal one during business hours. Barney Rosenthal surmised during the conversation, that other books were involved and Ken Nebenzahl confirmed the supposition. The next day, Rosenthal met with Warren Howell.
On December 15 Howell spoke with Ken Nebenzahl, thereby learning for the first, time of the Crerar Library’s missing books list which included a Harvey, a Vesalius, and a Copernicus. Within the next few days, the Crerar Library accomplished a great deal: the Board formed an ad hoc committee composed of Kenneth Nebenzahl and two others, informed the President of the University of Chicago of the situation, secured special legal counsel, and notified the FBI of the thefts. Kenneth Nebenzahl was advised not to discuss the case with Warren Howell.
The FBI in San Francisco soon contacted Howell. He willingly provided agents with records of all of his transactions with Putnam, and turned over to them all unsold books received from him. He obtained by telephone information from Kay Barber, whom he thought to be Putnam’s wife. The FBI taped the call, and the information obtained was instrumental in Putnam’s arrest. Howell obtained $3,000 from the Crerar Library through its legal counsel to pay to Putnam in order not to alarm him before an arrest could be made. This was: important: 328 books were seized, some with Crerar Library markings intact, when Putnam was arrested in January 1983.
In short, Howell did everything in his power to cooperate with authorities and with the Library, yet Crerar never sent him a copy of the missing books list, despite repeated requests. Nor did any other dealer receive it. Finally, Howell obtained the list from the FBI.
In 1983, he stated that only 39 of the 247 titles he received from Putnam appeared on the original missing books list. He contacted the purchasers of those books and when he could, he bought them back and turned them over to the United States Attorney in Milwaukee. The evidence against Putnam was overwhelming and he pleaded guilty to two counts of mail fraud, and was sentenced to two years in federal prison.
The saddest aspect of the entire affair is that literally the last person involved to learn that he had sold stolen books was the person who ended up having to answer charges of wrongdoing, and who to this day stands accused among his peers. The John Crerar Library filed a civil suit on January 31, 1983, against Joseph Putna, Kay Barber, Warren Howell, and John Howell–Books.
It alleged, among other things, that Howell “knew or should have known” that the books were stolen, and sought $500,000 in punitive damages, in addition to return of all the books or their value plus interest, attorney’s fees, etc.
Such a charge ought to have been answered, but Warren Howell died in January 1984, before the case came to trial. After four days of proceedings in April 1985, in which the plaintiff presented and rested its case, an out-of-court settlement was reached. The terms were to remain confidential by agreement of the parties, but no punitive damages were paid and the Crerar Library recovered its books or their equivalent value. Was a lawsuit, particularly one leveling such a hideous charge, really necessary to achieve this end? Every one of Warren Howell’s actions, once the thefts became known to him, speaks to the contrary.
“Warren Howell did not deserve what he got,” said Dr. Ann Speck, one of the John Howell–Books customers who turned over her purchases to the FBI for use as evidence in the case against Putnam. She was contacted by Warren Howell, not the FBI, and she complied with the request simply because he asked her to. Her books were not returned until long after the criminal proceedings were over. She has them back because the University of Chicago did not elect to keep them. Under the terms of the settlement of the civil case, she was told, the University had the right to confiscate any Crerar book it wanted, compensate its purchaser for the original purchase price and in turn be compensated by the estate of Warren Howell. In the event that the University of Chicago preferred the money to the books, the estate of Warren Howell paid the purchase price to the University.
There have been some, mostly in the trade and among librarians, who have readily concluded, perhaps not without a touch of Schadenfreude, that there must have been some culpability in the matter on Warren Howell’s part. Others, perhaps thinking themselves more kind, have questioned his expertise as well as scorned his trusting nature by suggesting that he really didn’t know, but ought to have.
By contrast, thank goodness, there are many, particularly including the former staff and customers of John Howell–Books, who are shocked and offended by such an erroneous and unfair interpretation of Warren Howell’s character and ability. “I was there for a long time,” said Jack Collins. “If there was dishonesty I would have been aware of it.”
There is really nothing more to say on the subject than that.
More on the Crerar Library and Warren Howell
Dear Mr. Chernofsky:
For almost two decades I was associated with Warren Howell and John Howell–Books in the capacity of corporate secretary and treasurer, and as financial director of the firm. So, it was with great interest that I read Jennifer Larson’s article, “An Enquiry into the Crerar Library Affair” (AB, Jan. 22, 1990). I congratulate Jennifer on her thorough research and her analytical presentation. Even though she concludes her article by saying: “There is really nothing more to say on the subject than that,” I would like to add to her report.
Warren Howell was a man of utmost integrity, completely honest, and possessing extraordinary trust and faith in his fellowman. He belonged to that wonderful genre of antiquarian book dealers who conducted business on the basis of one’s word and a handshake. Thus, it was not too surprising that he accepted the plausible statements of Joseph Putna [a.k.a. Putnam] in regard to the provenance of his books and his reasons for needing to sell them.
Upon receipt of those books at John Howell–Books, the usual routine was followed, and the books were examined, collated, catalogued, and checked against our files of data on missing books which had been reported by collectors and libraries. Every antiquarian book dealer probably follows a similar procedure.
Antiquarian book dealers are noted for their unfailing cooperation in helping libraries and collectors recover stolen property, and Warren Howell was certainly well known for the assistance he provided in this respect. Various instances of his cooperation with libraries and the FBI quickly come to mind, and several of them would make good cloak-and-dagger stories.
Knowing how helpful the antiquarian book trade is to libraries, the fact that the Crerar Library did not report any of its books stolen until 1982 is mind-boggling. When the problems of the Crerar became known, Warren Howell gave complete cooperation to the FBI and to the library to make sure that Putna was apprehended. We furnished the FBI with copies of all of our records pertaining to Putna, supplying information that the Crerar Library could not furnish about the books in question.
In September of 1983 Howell discussed with Jake Zeitlin his ideas of the two of them going to Chicago, and meeting with the Trustees of the Crerar Library and their attorneys to discuss the entire matter in good faith. Indeed, a letter, dated October 1, 1983, was received from the law offices of Jenner & Block, Chicago, confirming “that it is agreed that Mr. Howell and Mr. Zeitlin will meet with representatives of the Board of the John Crerar Library in Chicago on October 11, 1983 at 10:00 a.m. The meeting will be held at the offices of Jenner & Block.” However, that meeting did not take place, because of subsequent actions in Chicago.
To me, it was shocking that the Crerar Library would amend its complaint against Joseph Putna and his assistant, Kay Barber, to include Warren Howell and John Howell–Books. Warren Howell and his staff had provided the information and the assistance that enabled the FBI to catch the thief. Unfortunately, Warren Howell’s untimely death in January 1984 made it impossible for him to speak for himself and set the record straight in a court of law.
Even more shocking to me was the fact that after Howell’s death the Crerar complaint against him was amended to claim $500,000 punitive damages against his estate and the book shop. As Jennifer Larson stated in her article no punitive damages were paid.
Although the policy of the FBI is to avoid any involvement in civil litigation, the FBI did allow the deposition of its agent in charge in San Francisco to be taken and its files produced in regard to this claim for punitive damages. The two and one-half page report enumerated many instances where Howell’s assistance on matters related to this case had been obtained by he FBI.
The report ended with the statement that “Milwaukee [the office of the FBI] is of the opinion that efforts on the part of the Crerar Library to recover $500,000 punitive damages from Howell’s estate, based upon the allegation that he ’willfully and maliciously thwarted and interfered with plaintiff’s efforts to recover its property…are totally without foundation.”
Such a statement from the FBI was very gratifying when I learned of this in a courtroom in Chicago in April 1985, but the words were not surprising to me. After all, I had had the privilege of working with Warren Howell for many years, and I knew the man well. I would have told all of them in that courtroom that Howell was more than a knowledgeable antiquarian bookman—much more—for he was a man of the highest integrity who was completely honest in his dealings with his fellow-man.
San Francisco, Cal.
Dear Mr. Chernofsky:
I am aghast at the statement of Jennifer S. Larson (Jan. 22 AB) that tasteless and undistinguished bookplates get removed by dealers, and the deaccession stamps and other markings are effaced, which “may be unfortunate, but it is nevertheless customary.”
Thirty years ago in an article in The Book Collector I wrote: “A provenance is at once a cachet of excellence and a sentimental link in a cultural chain which binds one age to another.” This I believe. One of the evidences of Benjamin Franklin’s ownership is a pencil pressmark usually inside the front cover or on a flyleaf. A great many of them may have been among the “other markings” erased by thoughtless persons.
I must say — happily — that I don’t know any dealers, collectors or librarians who customarily destroy evidence of provenance. If that was standard procedure at Howell’s, it does not speak too well of the professionalism of owner and staff. Enough said!
Edwin Wolf 2nd
Dear Mr. Chernofsky:
I learned some time ago that Jennifer Larson was preparing the Joseph Putnam–Warren Howell story for print, and therefore read “An Enquiry to the Crerar Library Affair” (AB, Jan. 22, 1990) with much eagerness.
Ms. Larson’s reputation being that of an extremely knowledgeable and ethical book dealer, it was my hope that this account would present the details of this debacle in a thoughtful, balanced manner. Instead, I was left largely dissatisfied by her interpretation of the relevant events.
It is apparent that Ms. Larson intended this piece as ’a defense of Warren Howell, and she offers some powerful evidence to reinforce this claim: the fact that the stolen books were sold openly, not covertly, and that Mr. Howell cooperated fully with law enforcement officials once the thefts became obvious. However, she fails to make her case complete in several important instances.
After mentioning that, according to Putnam’s testimony, the purloined books were offered to other named establishments, Ms. Larson says: “We do not know who else [other than Sotheby’s] responded, or why Howell was chosen to handle the books.”
This is a significant point. At a minimum, Ms. Larson should have attempted to discover why the Sotheby’s deal fell through. A clean bill of health as to their negotiations with Mr. Putnam, or anyone else’s, would help vindicate Mr. Howell. Then again, suspicions on Sotheby’s part would be faintly damning to his involvement. Either way, the question is moot — and salient.
Another line of inquiry left underdeveloped by Ms. Larson is the testimony of John Howell–Books Treasurer Sally Zaiser. It is mentioned that Ms. Zaiser objected to paying Mr. Putnam in cash “on general principles.” Ms. Larson should have taken the opportunity to dig for more specific information here. It is difficult to believe that Ms. Zaiser did not have more pointed reasons for casting doubt on the Putnam-Howell transactions. Again, this presents an opportunity to exonerate or condemn Mr. Howell, depending on the evidence, and one can only wonder why Ms. Larson did not pursue it.
Even more peculiar are the comments Ms. Larson makes in two places. On one page, she states that there was “uneasiness all around [at John Howell–Books] about the situation [between Messrs. Putnam and Howell].” On the next, she asserts: “I believe that Warren Howell was simply satisfied with Putnam’s story [regarding acquisition of the books], and that was that.”
If in-house doubts were being raised as to the ethicality of the transactions, Ms. Larson’s interpretation of Mr. Howell’s attitude seems peculiar, if not contradictory. She also makes the dubious statement: “One does not get away with publicly selling stolen rare books of the rarity and importance [of the Crerar volumes]…” Yet, until the dam broke in 1982, Howell had succeeded in doing just that, and as Ms. Larson notes, it was only a fortuitous set of circumstances that exposed the thefts.
With no knowledge to the contrary, it could be speculated that Mr. Putnam made Mr. Howell aware of the Crerar’s sloppy housekeeping, and the consequent unlikelihood that the crimes would have been uncovered. This is an ugly line of thinking, but it must be considered.
Ms. Larson attempts to demonstrate the lack of suspicion engendered by the Putnam volumes when she writes: “Not all the books showed evidence of having markings removed, and no consistent pattern was perceived in those that did.”
This is the weakest statement present in the entire article. Anyone who has worked in an academic rare book collection, as Ms. Larson has, knows that the lack of such a pattern is the rule, not the exception. The custom these days is to keep newer acquisitions clean, tagged with acid-free strips or similar paraphernalia easily removed. (All this is done in the interest of value retention should deaccessioning ever take place.) By contrast, older items and newer ex-library acquisitions frequently possess markings. It would consequently be expected that a collection of rare books, stolen from a library, would exhibit markings in some instances and not in others.
Like Ms. Larson, I want to believe that Mr. Howell acted in good faith, at all times, during his distinguished career. Even today, I measure the excellence of a rare book emporium against what John Howell–Books was like in the 1960s and 1970s, when I was an occasional customer.
Unfortunately, given the cash payments (which even Ms. Larson characterizes as “unusual even at the highest echelons of the trade”), given the seductive qualities of Putnam’s merchandise, given Mr. Howell’s likely knowledge of the Crerar’s rampant disorganization, I believe Mr. Howell knew what was happening and felt legally secure from the equivocal nature of the transactions. Many receivers of stolen goods, particularly well-established businessmen, can dispense with the situation by making speedy restitution and claiming they acted it good faith. In theory and practice, Warren Howell fits squarely into this category.
Ms. Larson will, no doubt, dislike conclusions. She is entitled to her opinions of course, but they must be backed with firmer evidence and reasoning than is fount in her article.
William B. Secrest, Jr.
Jennifer Larson replies:
It is my turn to be aghast at the realization that Mr. Wolf has construed my words as approval of the practice of tampering with a book’s provenance, or acknowledgment that such alterations were routine at John Howell–Books. Neither is the case.
Nevertheless I reiterate that evidence of a book’s prior ownership is often removed, not only by members of the trade, and not always detectably.
I am grateful to Mr. Secrest for his thoughtful and detailed response to my article, and for his courage in expressing openly the suspicions many have privately held about Warren Howell’s involvement in the Crerar Library thefts. Most who feel that Howell acted culpably have declined to speak for the record, which has made their charges difficult to answer.
There is a great deal more to the story than appears in my article in AB. There are many lines of inquiry which I did not pursue, for lack of space, time, and legal expertise. Among other things, the article would have been much better for information that only Bob Rosenthal could have provided. Over the years I have had numerous discussions with him on the subject, and arranged for him to lecture in San Francisco about it; but my plans to meet with him in Chicago on December 29, 1989 were dashed by his untimely death. The subject merits a book, really.
To answer Mr. Secrest’s first point, as best as I have been able to determine, there were no negotiations with Sotheby’s that fell through. Evidently Putnam did not respond to their expression of interest. I would speculate that the reason for his choice of Howell was Howell’s offer to meet with him personally en route to Europe.
Presumably Jake Zeitlin did not respond because he and Howell agreed to act jointly on the books from Putnam. The two dealers spoke on the telephone almost daily. Harry Levinson, the only other dealer mentioned as having been contacted, has no recollection of Putnam’s letter and is certain that he had no negotiations with Putnam that later fell through.
Would Mr. Secrest, since he appears to find even the initial Putnam offer something a reputable dealer would not touch, also include Jake Zeitlin in his scathing indictment? And Kenneth Nebenzahl, for facilitating a cash transaction?
Secondly, Mr. Secrest characterizes my attempts to describe the 13-year-old recollections of initial reservations about the consignment as peculiar, contradictory, and dubious. Because he finds these reservations damaging, I will reiterate that the concerns were not over the ethics of selling books stolen from the Crerar Library, but over the propriety of handling books that had suddenly left East Germany in the postwar period.
Mr. Secrest provides three circumstances which he states have overcome his desire to believe that Warren Howell acted in good faith: (1) cash payments; (2) seductive merchandise; and (3) “Mr. Howell’s likely knowledge of Crerar’s rampant disorganization.”
With regard to cash payments, Mr. Secrest is mistaken about Sally Zaiser’s objections, and about my failure to develop this line of inquiry. The quotes in my article were not from Sally Zaiser’s “testimony,” since there never was any. She was not called as a witness for the plaintiff and the defense never presented its case.
Sally Zaiser’s attitude as expressed in my article was the result of recent lengthy telephone conversations in December and January. Her objections were merely as I stated them, on general principles: a dislike of the nuisance of obtaining cash and of the risk of theft or injury to the person carrying the cash.
Regarding the second point, the implication that Warren Howell’s scruples were overcome by the seductive nature of the books, I can state that during my too-brief employment at John Howell–Books (six years), I witnessed countless instances where he failed to succumb to similar temptations. On two occasions that immediately spring to mind, he was personally responsible for stolen material being restored to the victimized institutions (the University of Alaska, and the Law Library at the University of California at Berkeley).
A dealer occupies a position of special trust, both in buying and selling. His resistance to the temptation to pay too little, or not disclose every flaw in his wares, is tested every day. Among Warren Howell’s former staff, who daily witnessed his business dealings, I know of no one who feels him to have ever acted dishonorably. Since the publication of my AB article 1 have heard, favorably, from former employees Jeremy Norman, Dorothy Sloan, Diana Hook, Sally Zaiser, David Forbes, Jack Collins and Michael Horowitz.
I suppose it is in a peculiar way flattering to Warren Howell that his detractors have attributed such omniscience to him. How on earth is he supposed to have known, as Mr. Secrest alleges in his third point, of the “rampant disorganization” at Crerar? By all the evidence available to me, it came as a great shock even to the Crerar’s own Board of Directors in April 1981 to learn that the Harvey was missing and that the status of the rare book collection was unknown.
From these three circumstances, then, Mr. Secrest arrives at the damning conclusion that Howell knew he was selling stolen books, and felt that he could either get away with it or, if not, could simply make speedy restitution and claim ignorance.
Does it makes sense that such a shrewd receiver of stolen goods would run this kind of risk for a commission of 25 percent? For every $250 taken in, from which cataloguing costs and other overhead must be deducted, he would risk having to reimburse $1,000. Television and Hollywood fences typically pay only 10% to the thief, which is a lot more businesslike. Certainly, if Howell and Putnam were in actual collusion, as Mr. Secrest amazingly thinks possible, Howell would have insisted upon a much larger share of the proceeds.
A receiver of stolen goods also risks litigation (Howell was sued for $500,000 in punitive damages) and a jail sentence. He would have further been risking utter ruin in the book business and irreparable damage to a lifetime of distinguished achievement.
I believe Mr. Secrest is wrong when he says that only a fortuitous set of circumstances exposed the thefts in 1982. The Crerar Library missed books for a considerable time before that, and the inventory by the University of Chicago resulted in a missing-books list that could not have been ignored. Even without the Nicolas de Cusa incident, the transfer of the collections soon would have resulted in certain exposure. I find it impossible to believe that even if there had been no transfer, the missing books could have been officially disregarded by Crerar much longer.
Information about those three most identifiable missing books would have gotten to someone who would have known, as anyone with an eye on the trade would have, that two of them had recently been publicly offered by Howell. I should have modified the statement to which Mr. Secrest objects: “One does not, in the long run, get away with publicly selling stolen books of the rarity and importance [of the Crerar volumes].”
Warren Howell was an honorable man, and would not have done what he is accused of doing; but I do not expect anyone who suspects otherwise to be swayed by my opinion in such a subjective matter. He has never, however, to my knowledge been accused of being stupid; I know of no more apt word for the behavior Mr. Secrest imputes to him.
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