Millionaire thefts of valuable Russian books in Europe leave clues that lead to Moscow

A university employee presents a fake copy of a book from the 1833, edition of the 1822 book ‘Kavkazskiy plennik: povest’ by Alexander Pushkin at the Warsaw University library. (Wojtek Radwanski / AFP) (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/)

A series of thefts of Russian classics worth almost Two millions of euros in libraries in Eastern Europe left traces that point to auctions in Moscow.

Over the past two years, shelves of 19th-century Russian literature have been looted in Poland and the Baltic countries. In all these cases the original works were replaced by forgeries.

The Warsaw University Library became aware last month of the thefts, which included first editions of works by Alexander Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol.

According to a university employee, the value of the books stolen in Warsaw is “around one million euros,” about $1.1 million.

“It’s like they stole the crown jewels,” he told AFP Hieronim Grala, a former diplomat, expert on Russian politics and professor at the University of Warsaw, who helped assess the damage.

This theft is not an isolated case.

Important libraries in the three Baltic countries (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) were also stolen and in all cases it was Russian literature from the 19th century.

A fake copy of an 1831 first edition of the book “Boris Godunov” by Alexander Pushkin (Wojtek Radwanski / AFP) (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/)
The thief left the original binding of the book in the library, where he pasted a digital copy of the book prepared in advance, while he took the original copy (Wojtek Radwanski / AFP) (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/)

According to experts, the trail leads to Moscow, where works similar to the stolen pieces were sold at auction.

“Industrial scale”

The first known case took place in April 2022 at the National Library of Latvia, where three works disappeared.

A Georgian was convicted of that robbery and sentenced to six months in prison, but his accomplice remains free.

That same month, two men who claimed to study censorship and publishing policy in early 19th-century Russia showed up at the university library in the Estonian city of Tartu and They asked for the works of Pushkin and Gogol, almost 200 years old.

Only four months later, the library realized that They had left eight convincing-looking copies, and not the real books whose total value was estimated at 158,000 euros ($170,000).

In May, the Vilnius University Library in Lithuania discovered that it also 17 of his most valuable Russian books had disappeared.

“The majority of the stolen books were replaced with non-original copies,” he told the AFP Gintare Vitkauskaite-Satkauskiene, spokesperson for the Lithuanian prosecutor’s office.


According to Lithuanian investigators, the stolen books were valued at around 440,000 euros ($480,000).

The University of Warsaw has so far identified 79 missing bookswhich means that it has suffered the most significant losses of the four countries.

“Here, the thieves acted on an industrial scale“, he said to the AFP an employee of the Warsaw University Library on condition of anonymity.

While the books remained in the catalogue, the originals were sold in Moscow.

“There is a note dated December 22, 2022 in which it says that the books are in their place,” explains Grala to AFP.

That same day, at an auction in Moscow, one of these books sold for 30,500 euros.” ($33,000), he adds.

“Organized from Russia”

Sources close to the Warsaw library investigation showed the AFP screenshots of auctions held by the Russian auction house Litfond with books bearing stamps and catalog numbers of the University of Warsaw.

The fake copy of a book from 1802 — the cover is copied and pasted into another worthless 19th century book and the stamps are fake (AFP) (WOJTEK RADWANSKI/)

“It is clear to me that all action was organized centrally from Russia”Glala declared.

The AFP Litfond was contacted, but its CEO, Sergei Burmistrov, did not explicitly deny or confirm any wrongdoing.

“The Litfond auction house works within the framework of the current legislation of the Russian Federation, and we do not accept for sale or sell any books with stamps from existing state libraries,” Burmistrov stated.

For Grala, there is a clear link connecting the robberies in Poland and the Baltic countries to Russia.

“The first three blows affected countries that Russians accuse of fighting against the Russian language and culture,” he explained.

Relations between Poland and Russia have long been tense, with Warsaw critical of the Kremlin and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Grala says he is “devastated” by “irreversible” losses of Russian books that had survived two national uprisings and two world wars on Polish soil.

“The librarians of the University of Warsaw, risking their lives during the war, secretly built a double roof and hid the books so that they would not disappear or catch fire,” he noted.

“But we couldn’t protect them from this looting,” he said resignedly.

(With information from AFP)