Register Saturday | June 15 | 2019

The Rare Books Detective

Shopping on the antiquarian trail

The New York Antiquarian Book Fair is the oldest and most prestigious such event in the United States. Held each spring in the gargantuan Park Avenue Armory on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, the fair draws more than a hundred dealers from Vienna, Paris, London and beyond. Opening night is a gala preview. Red carpet divides the booksellers’ aisles, and a tuxedoed band plays some vague, unobtrusive jazz while deals upwards of $100,000 are made between sips of wine and samples from the generous cheese platter. Major categories at the fair include modern first editions, English literature, science, and travel and voyages. But advertised specialties range widely: the occult and bibles; tennis and Maurice Sendak; books about books and Canadiana.

The rare book business is a small, select world—the largest organization, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, boasts about two thousand members worldwide; the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America about five hundred—and the fair is the apotheosis of the industry’s stuffy charms.

Ken Sanders mingles happily with the crowd, if not quite inconspicuously. His bushy beard, which stretches to his chest, sets him apart from his rather staid-seeming colleagues; and though he is balding, remnants of the fifty-two-year-old’s mostly grey hair are pulled back in a short ponytail. Still, Sanders, proprietor of a bookstore in Salt Lake City that specializes in Edward Abbey and the literary West, manages to engage his fellow bibliophiles. The rare book world, after all, is where Sanders has spent his life since he began collecting as a teenager.

There is another world, too, in which Sanders has grown adept at manoeuvring, a world filled with shadowy figures and deceit. In this world, Sanders is not merely a rare books dealer, but a rare books detective. As chair of the security committee for the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), Sanders spends between ten and fifteen hours a week poring over reports of theft and fraud, sending alerts to ABAA members and, as the situation warrants, conducting his own investigations. His tenure as security chair for the ABAA—a volunteer position—began in 1999 and has coincided with the rapid growth of Internet commerce and of its spawn, electronic fraud, to which the bookselling community has been especially susceptible.

Book dealers who have been defrauded know to turn to Sanders,
as law enforcement agencies like the FBI and Interpol almost never take an interest in the jurisdictional complexity of tracking down rare-book thieves. Using a stolen credit card number and just enough literary knowledge, a typical thief can convince an unsuspecting dealer to ship a valuable first edition across several time zones. Rare books are small, easily portable, not overtly suspicious and, thanks to Internet auction sites like eBay, easily converted into cash. No one keeps track of total losses, but the most notorious thieves working the trade have made off with as much as $100,000 US each in books—taking care never to “spend” more than about $5,000 at a time so as to avoid rousing suspicion.

Reports of theft and fraud have shaken up the rare book trade, to
the chagrin of many. “It’s been a trusting, gentle business for most of its existence,” says Sanders, “a handshake kind of business.” Rooted deep within the culture of bookselling is a certain reticence, an essential genteelness that Sanders, with his hard-charging efforts, seems to have endangered. Booksellers seem dismissive of
any talk about theft and scams and consider it a serious impediment to business. Steven Temple, security chair for the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, doesn’t
think that theft is necessarily increasing at all, only that it is now more commonly reported.

Sanders’ investigations, however, have undeniably led to results. He has shut down gangs in Belgrade operating with stolen credit card numbers and eBay accounts—though not before they managed to scam dealers of about $40,000 in rare books. Sanders has also disrupted gangs of credit-card fraudsters based in Nigeria and Ghana, baiting them by accepting orders and then shutting down their stolen card numbers. Sanders takes pleasure in asking for another card, and then another, until the fraudsters realize he’s on to their schemes.

Last year Sanders helped nab book thief John Charles Gilkey, who may have stolen as much as $100,000 in books. For months Gilkey—who was “brazen as hell,” says Sanders—placed orders with booksellers over the phone, often chatting up dealers before using a stolen credit card to make the purchase. Before the charge could be disputed, Gilkey would call back to mention that a cousin or nephew was conveniently in town and able to drop by the bookshop. Then he or his accomplice—identified afterwards as his father—would leave with the book in hand. Gilkey later switched methods and asked booksellers to send books by overnight mail to hotels, where he had reserved a room with a different stolen credit card.

When Gilkey attempted to scam Ken Lopez, president of the ABAA, Lopez and Sanders worked with police in San Jose to set up a sting. Lopez, a Massachusetts-based dealer, let Gilkey go through with an order for a first edition of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Though the asking price was $6,500, Gilkey actually talked Lopez down to a price of $5,850. He also asked Lopez to send the book overnight to the upscale Westin Hotel in Palo Alto. When Gilkey, dressed in rumpled slacks and a baseball cap, arrived to pick up the package, police were on the scene to apprehend him. After posting a $15,000 bail, Gilkey disappeared, eluding authorities for weeks until he was eventually caught in another sting. He is now serving a three-year sentence in California.

Why does Sanders pursue these white-collar criminals so relentlessly? “I have an innate sense of fairness,” he says. His daughter Melissa agrees: “He takes [theft] so personally, not only when it happens to our store, but to our colleagues.” Melissa, twenty-five, manages Ken Sanders Rare Books. Once, when a shoplifter at the store made off with a $1,500 painting of Jesus Christ, Sanders followed the thief to his car, denting a door and breaking a window before being knocked to the ground as the car sped away. “Dad,” says Melissa Sanders, “is a volatile man.” His hands bloodied, Sanders called the police with the thief’s licence plate number, then got in his truck and searched the neighbourhood. The thief, perhaps intimidated, called Sanders later that day to say that he had left the painting at a nearby restaurant, where it was subsequently recovered.

One man, however, vexes Sanders above all others: David George Holt, aka Frederik Buwe, aka Professor Karl Fisher. Holt, a sixty-two-year-old Illinois native turned globetrotter, actually has many more aliases, all allegedly used in email and Internet scams that have plagued book dealers since the mid-1990s. “With Holt, it’s personal,” Sanders says grimly. Other thieves may have gotten away with more money, but Holt is notorious for his persistence, for his apparent duplicity and for a possible association with the Russian mafia that Sanders has brought to the attention of the FBI. If all this was not enough to place a dark cloud over the book trade, there is also the rumour of Holt’s involvement in the disappearance of Svetlana Aronov.

Aronov—a popular New York bookseller known for her wit and style, as well as her collection of Russian avant-garde titles—was noticeably absent from the New York book fair. Five weeks earlier, Aronov, forty-four, had left her apartment on the Upper East Side to go for a walk with her family’s cocker spaniel and never returned. Her relatives visited the fair to hand out flyers offering a reward for information leading to her return. Detectives visited the fair as well, intent on speaking with booksellers about Aronov and with Sanders about Holt. Sanders had already been in contact with the New York police and had posted email notices urging people with knowledge of either Aronov or Holt to contact authorities.

Sadly, Aronov’s body was found in the East River across from Manhattan several weeks later. Police never named a suspect, and months later, there have still been no arrests in the case.

Holt has not taken kindly to Sanders’ meddling. Early one morning, a heavily accented voice left a message on Sanders’ voice mail threatening to visit Salt Lake City to “cut your balls off.” Sanders recognized the voice as Holt’s and simply rattled off an email to his nemesis: “Dave, no need to come all this way. Send me your address and I’ll come and visit you.” Sanders remains unfazed in the face of such threats. His rationale: if something were going to happen, it would have happened already. “Despite my aggressiveness, I’m not Superman,” he says. “People do think I’m crazy for doing what I’m doing.”

Whether or not Holt is dangerous, he certainly has a checkered past. According to FBI Special Agent William Hann, in 1991 Holt stole about $100,000 in US Savings Bonds from his grandmother and used the money to start a new life in New Zealand, abandoning a wife and five children in a suburb of Milwaukee in the process. From New Zealand, he allegedly began targeting booksellers in various schemes. At the urging of angry booksellers, Holt was extradited to the United States in 1997 on an outstanding charge of securities fraud. Hann said book dealers documented for him over $3,000 in losses from fraud, but he suspects the total to be much higher. Holt served an eighteen-month sentence for securities fraud and was released in 1999. Since his release, dozens of complaints have been made involving aliases that Sanders believes serve to cloak Holt. The hallmarks of Holt’s alleged scams are emails written in broken English and deals too good to be true, which appeal to dealers’ greed.

Sanders emails Holt whenever he catches wind of a new alias, and the pair go back and forth. Holt has emailed Sanders with a promise to commit future frauds “in our mutual good name” and signed it “Kennet Sanders Rarities.” Through a computer expert, Sanders has tracked most of these email aliases to Volgograd, Russia. In addition, some of the scams have involved wire transfers to Russia, leading Sanders to believe that the Russian mafia has become interested in the rare book trade, with Holt perhaps merely serving as an agent in their crimes.

Holt has even been so bold as to be included as the contact person in an online listing for a bookseller by the name of Dr. R. Litchkovakha. A call to Litchkovakha in New Zealand about the listing was answered by a young woman with a strong New Zealand accent, who suggested calling back in about three hours to reach her father. A phone message and email outlining the accusations against Holt were answered with an email that sharply denied “any association with fraudulent activities [or] threats.” The voice on the answering machine in New Zealand is that of a man, sounding cheery and very American, who identifies himself as Dr. R. Litchkovakha. The voice says, “If I’m not in, I’m probably out hunting for a book.” Rest assured, Sanders is out there too, looking to catch a thief.