Important Galileo work stolen from National Library

by Deborah Cater
National Librayr Spain from where an important Galileo work was stolen

Spain’s National Library hid the theft of important Galileo work for four years. The National Police are still investigating the disappearance of ‘Sidereus Nuncius’.

An investigation by Spanish newspaper El Pais claims the National Library concealed the theft of one of their most important works for over four years. From 2014 to 2018, the National Library’s catalogue still listed Galileo’s Sidereus Nuncius, or Sidereal Messenger, as original. In fact, it had been substituted by a copy.

Theft of Galileo work

Published by Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei in 1610, Sidereus Nuncius is a treatise on Galileo’s astronomical discoveries. Those discoveries, made after he built a telescope in 1609, included mountains on the moon, the Milky Way consists of separate stars and that Jupiter has four moons. Experts estimate it to be worth around €800,000.

Book restorers discovered the replacement of the original with a forgery in 2014. However, the work continued to appear in the library’s catalogue as the original until 2018, when British researcher Nick Wilding, professor at George University in the US, contacted the head of the National Library Ana Santos.

This is not the first time Sidereus Nuncius has been stolen from the National Library. In 1987, along with 100 other books by astronomers such as Johannes Kepler and Nicolaus Copernicus, it was removed. Police recovered it two years later. The returned work was thought to be the original.

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How was the theft discovered?

“It was pure chance,” says Fuensanta Salvador, book restorer.  “The work has a binding and spine made of parchment. Upon seeing it, we thought that it should be in an acid-free conservation box. The copy seemed to us to be too new to be from 1610. The printing and embossing process leaves a mark, and it didn’t have any, it was very clean. We thought it was odd. We immediately told the technical team.”

An examination of the work confirmed the worst – it was a fake.  Still the theft was not reported. On October 20, 2018 – 53 months after they discovered the forgery – the head of the National Library, Santos reported the theft to police. The National Police have been investigating ever since.

Main suspect known for theft

One of the few people to consult the Galileo work before it was taken was César Ovidio Gómez Rivero. He had previously stolen two engraved and illustrated world maps from the 1482 treatise Geography by Ptolemy from the National Library in 2007. According to police sources, Gómez Rivero consulted Sidereus Nuncius in 2004, three years before stealing the maps from Geography.

Santos says security at the library is tighter now. “It is a failure and a misfortune, but unfortunately robberies happen. The world of forgeries is complicated. More forged copies have been detected in the library. We have not tried to cover up anything,” she says.

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