The director of Spain’s national library has been summoned to the ministry of culture to account for why it took the library four years to report the theft of a book by the 17th-century Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei.
According to an investigation by El País, a restoration team discovered in 2014 that the library’s edition of Sidereus Nuncius, published in Venice in 1610, had been stolen and replaced by a copy.
“The copy seemed to us to be too new to be from 1610,” Fuensanta Salvador, one of the restorers who was part of the programme, told the newspaper. “The printing and embossing process leaves a mark, and it didn’t have any, it was very clean. We thought it was odd.”
However, Ana Santos, the library’s director, did not report the theft to the police until 2018, and in the intervening years the forged copy continued to appear in the library’s catalogue as the original.
The disappearance was made public only after Nick Wilding, a British researcher at the University of Georgia, noticed that a copy was on display in the library’s 2018 exhibition Cosmos, and enquired about the whereabouts of the original.
The book is described as a copy in the exhibition’s catalogue but Santos said that at the time this didn’t strike her as strange as she was unaware that the library owned an original.
Santos, who has been in charge of the library since 2013, told El País that she was only made aware of the theft when Wilding contacted her in 2018 and that the first thing she wanted to know was “why hadn’t I been informed?”.
“I can’t be held responsible for something I know nothing about,” she said. “It’s terrible that technical staff didn’t tell me about this in 2014.”
Her account has been contradicted by Mar Hernández, who was responsible for restoration at the library at the time but has since retired. Hernández insists the issue was discussed with Santos at a meeting, and produced emails from 2014 and 2016 in which she asks that the director be informed of the situation.
Santos said she never received the report and also that after involving the police in 2018 she sent an email to the ministry of culture informing it of the theft.
José Guirao, the then culture minister, told El País: “As minister I wasn’t told about either the theft or the investigation.”
An unnamed source in the library told the newspaper that the Galileo theft was “only the tip of the iceberg”. The source claimed the book may have been substituted as early as 2007, when two 15th-century maps based on the works of the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy were stolen.
César Ovidio Gómez Rivero, a Spaniard living in Argentina, confessed to the 2007 thefts, and was one of the few people who had consulted Sidereus nuncius before it was taken. The maps were later recovered in Sydney and New York but as yet there is no trace of the missing Galileo book.
After the 2007 thefts there was widespread anger about a lack of security at the library, and its then leader, Rosa Regàs, was forced to resign. The then culture minister accused Regàs of not telling him of the theft.
Sidereus Nuncius, which is valued at €800,000 (£685,000), is written in Latin and describes Galileo’s latest discoveries in astronomy. In 1615 he was tried for heresy by the Inquisition and forced to renounce his claim that we live in a heliocentric universe.