News Release — February 2, 2004
Perpetrator of Book Theft at Harry Ransom Center Sentenced
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks issued Mimi Meyer, 57, of Chicago, a three-year probation on Jan. 30 for the theft of materials from The University of Texas at Austin's Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center.
Sparks also ordered that Meyer pay restitution fees of $381,595. She had pleaded guilty to one felony count of stealing valuable cultural materials from a museum.
Meyer was terminated as a volunteer in September 1992 when a rare volume from the stacks was discovered in her office. The volume had not been checked out and was outside a secure area, which is a violation of the Center's policy. Subsequent routine inventories raised suspicions that Meyer had taken items from the collection while she volunteered at the Center.
"The crime occurred over a decade ago and we are grateful to finally have a resolution," said Thomas F. Staley, director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. "Book thieves are almost always caught and eventually brought to justice. We worked closely with the FBI to insure this positive outcome. The good news is we developed much more sophisticated security measures and that we'll be recovering irreplaceable materials."
Meyer, a volunteer at the Ransom Center from 1989-1992, admitted to stealing and attempting to sell a copy of the rare book "Il Petrarcha," as well as 11 other rare books. Published by the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius in 1514, The "Il Petrarcha" collection of Francesco Petrarcha's work contains his famous sonnets addressed to his love, Laura.
Evidence of the theft appeared in 2001 when it was determined that Swann Galleries in New York listed "Il Petrarcha" as an item in its auction catalog. While this book had been reported missing at the Ransom Center in 1995, evidence of it being stolen was not conclusive until this discovery. The University of Texas Police Department and the FBI were then immediately brought into the case.
As part of her plea agreement, Meyer agreed to provide information about the sale of books as well as return books still in her possession to the Ransom Center. It is believed that Meyer sold books to Swann Galleries, Heritage, Pacific Book Auctions and Sotheby's New York for more than $300,000.
"The true victims of library thefts are the public, students, faculty and researchers who have been denied access to these materials," said Staley. "While no library is 100 percent secure from thefts, I believe our review of internal procedures which have been in place now for over a decade and security upgrades of more than half a million dollars decrease the possibility of such occurrences."
Some of the approximately 300 books being returned to the Ransom Center include books from the 15th century, a quarto edition of John Audubon's "Birds of America," Japanese art books, two important early editions by Italian printmaker Stefano della Bella and works by Lewis Carroll. Part of the restitution fees will be used for conservation treatments for the returned books and recataloging of the materials.
With more than 45 million items in its collections, the Ransom Center holds one of the preeminent cultural archives in the country, including one million rare books, 36 million manuscripts, five million photographs, more than 100,000 works of art and design and major collections relating to the performing arts and film.
In April 2003 the Ransom Center opened its doors to 40,000 square feet of newly constructed public space, including the Ransom Center Galleries, exhibition space to spotlight the Center's riches; the 129-seat Charles Nelson Prothro Theater, a state-of-the-art space for readings, lectures, film and performances; as well as permanent exhibitions of the Gutenberg Bible (c. 1450) and the First Photograph (c. 1826). The second floor features new public research facilities, including reading rooms and seminar and viewing rooms.
"The renovation reflects the vision of the Ransom Center: to provide spaces worthy of the collections and to make those spaces accessible to a growing public," said Staley. "Our responsibility is clear: maintain secure areas for these materials while providing accessibility to the collections."