Homeland Security Investigations agents help track down rare stolen book

Displayed on a table are some of the 19 artifacts recovered by Homeland Security Investigations for return to Italy.
Displayed on a table are some of the 19 artifacts recovered by Homeland Security Investigations for return to Italy. (James DeBoer / Baltimore Sun)

A thief had stolen a rare 16th-century book from Italy. It was Marty Hamlin's job to find it, and help bring it home.

Hamlin, a special agent in Baltimore for Homeland Security Investigations — an arm of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — took the case in September 2013.


Agents with an HSI office in Rome had been hot on the book's trail when it was sold by an auction house in the Italian capital. Hamlin picked up the trail, and within weeks had the book in his gloved hands.

It turned out the rare books dealer who bought the book at the auction had sold it — to library curators at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.


Hamlin recalls the shock of Hopkins officials when a Homeland Security agent showed up.

"You know, those kinds of things happen," said Liz Mengel, associate director of scholarly resources and special collections at Hopkins' Sheridan Libraries. There are "always stories about book thieves and art thieves and manuscript thieves. Hopefully it only happens to us once in my lifetime."

The book, "Historia naturale di Ferrante Imperato Napolitano," was one of 19 cultural treasures recovered by the HSI and returned to Italian officials.

The HSI, perhaps best known for chasing drug smugglers and human traffickers, often takes the lead on investigations of another sort: the illegal importation and distribution of antiquities.


With 63 attache offices in 46 countries, the HSI works with foreign governments on joint investigations. The agency has offices in the United States, too, including one at the historic U.S. Custom House in Baltimore. There, about 100 agents also investigate cybercrimes, money laundering, immigration fraud and other crimes.

Since 2007, HSI agents have helped return more than 7,200 artifacts to 30 countries. Agents have tracked down paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria; centuries-old manuscripts from Italy and Peru; and artifacts from China, Cambodia and Iraq.

The case of the stolen book — a world-renowned catalog of specimens gathered by the 16th-century Neapolitan apothecary Ferrante Imperato — was one of 11 separate HSI investigations that led to seven different U.S. cities and resulted in the recovery of the 19 artifacts. The book that ended up at Hopkins had been stolen with two others from a collection of natural history research at an Italian government agency.

The other books were found in San Francisco. Also recovered in the investigations: a 17th-century cannon, ancient Greek pottery and an ancient Roman marble sarcophagus lid bearing the image of sleeping woman.

The immigration and customs agency often conducts separate investigations simultaneously before returning large quantities of recovered goods to a foreign government all at once — usually during a special ceremony, an ICE spokeswoman said.

Claudio Bisogniero, the Italian ambassador to the United States, announced the return of the artifacts.

"This repatriation underscores the strong level of judicial cooperation between the U.S. and Italy, and the great attention that both countries assign to the protection of cultural heritage," he said. He also praised the work of the Italian Carabinieri — the national police — known internationally for recovering works of art, for its role in the recovery.

The ICE said that returning a nation's looted artifacts "promotes goodwill with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world's cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations."

The agency said in a statement that the theft and trafficking of cultural items is as ancient as the artifacts themselves, but "what has changed is the ability of cultural pirates to acquire, transport and sell valuable cultural property and art swiftly, easily and stealthily. These criminals operate on a global scale without regard for laws, borders, nationalities or the significance of the treasures they smuggle."

Hamlin says criminals use covert websites to hatch their schemes.

"The bad guys know they can freely talk to each other without detection," he said. "By the time we catch up, they've already done what they need to do."

When the 10-year veteran worked on the stolen book case, he was assigned to an intellectual property unit that also handles customs fraud, antiquities and cybercrime. It gave him a chance to outwit criminals, "like a game of cat and mouse," he said.

Hamlin said finding ways around obstacles and eventually homing in on answers is one of the best parts of the job. There's also "the satisfaction of being able to help."

"We were able to identify that this book was stolen and go in and say 'Wow, I was able to get this back.'"

The theft of the three books was first reported to Italian police in May 2013. A director at the Historical National Library of Agriculture in Rome had discovered them missing while taking inventory.

The books were likely stolen sometime after November 2011, Hamlin said. The police contacted the HSI attache office in Rome, which was able to identify the auction house that had purchased the books.

"Using databases and techniques we have, we were able to identify where the books were sold and coordinated with each other to find out who purchased the books," Hamlin said.

An authorized antiquarian bookseller purchased the book at auction, then offered it for sale.

Earle Havens, a curator of rare books and manuscripts at Hopkins, bought the book for a collection on the history of building museums and libraries, and a course he teaches.

The book, published in 1599, is notable for an engraving of a cabinet of curiosities that belonged to Imperato. It's one of the earliest pictures of a Renaissance-era natural history research collection.

"This is one of the all-time most famous books in the history of collecting," Havens said. It is unknown how many copies remain in the world.

Hopkins lost no money on the deal because it bought the book from a bonded dealer. Even better, Havens soon spotted another copy of the same book for sale, a 1672 edition, and was able to acquire it.

"The book went back to its proper home, without loss or damage to us, and we acquired the finest copy of a 1672 edition anywhere in the world," he said.

That copy has been placed in Hopkins' special collection reading room.

"It's available for people to come in and use … for research, teaching or the general pleasure of being able to look at a book that's 500 years old," Mengel said.

And the book thief might have been caught. A suspect, known for similar thefts of antiquarian books, was arrested and charged by Italian authorities, according to ICE. The case is pending.

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