Rare Chinese books stolen from Harvard

Sunday, October 8th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BOSTON – Forty-one centuries-old Chinese books and two scrolls worth more than $1 million are missing from Harvard-Yenching Library, which houses the largest collection of East Asian books outside Asia.

A rare book specialist at the Harvard University-owned library discovered in March that the books and scrolls – among the library's most prized possessions – had been snatched from their protected perch in the rare book room.

"These are works of huge historic and literary importance," Nancy Cline, head librarian of Harvard College, told the Boston Globe in Saturday's edition. "It's very difficult to estimate their loss."

When she learned of the theft, Ms. Cline contacted the FBI. Neither the museum nor law enforcement authorities publicly acknowledged the theft or issued a statement.

This summer, however, the collection was registered in the Stolen Art File, an FBI Web site designed to alert potential buyers to purloined artworks.

Investigators and Harvard officials won't say much about the investigation or how the works were stolen.

The university now faces the challenge of developing sufficient security that doesn't impede the cause of allowing people to mine the vast stacks on their own.

The stolen works cover a variety of arcane subjects in the Song, Yuan, Ming and Qing periods of Chinese history – from the years 960 to 1911.

Without them, Ms. Cline said, there's a glaring omission in the library's collection of about a million books. "When books like this are taken, the break in the collection has a far-reaching impact on scholarship," Ms. Cline said. "Its effect is worldwide."