Razzia on Pushkin: thieves of precious old Russian books had targeted the Paul-Valéry University in Montpellier

Razzia on Pushkin: thieves of precious old Russian books had targeted the Paul-Valéry University in Montpellier
Razzia on Pushkin: thieves of precious old Russian books had targeted the Paul-Valéry University in Montpellier

Info Midi Libre. A gang of Georgian criminals, specializing in thefts of original editions of the great authors of Russian literature, committed in the main European libraries, came to Montpellier in October. The criminal network was dismantled on April 24 during a major operation coordinated by Europol.

They came to scout in the fall of 2023 at the library of the Paul-Valéry Montpellier 3 University, they took action in Paris, at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BNF) as well as at that of the School Nationale Supérieure de Lyon (ENS). Several members of an astonishing international criminal network, specializing in the theft of original editions of great authors of Russian literature, were the target of a vast operation coordinated by Europol, on January 24, in Georgia and Latvia, after a first wave of arrests in France last November.

150 books seized in Georgia and Latvia

Around a hundred police officers searched 27 sites, arrested four suspects, and recovered more than 150 books, at least one of which had been stolen in 2023 in France, while similar thefts have been recorded for two years in the Czech Republic and Estonia. , in Finland, Germany, Poland and Switzerland.

“This criminal group would be responsible for the theft of at least 170 books, causing financial damage amounting to approximately €2.5 million, and an immeasurable loss of assets for society. Some of these historic objects were sold at auction at St. Petersburg and Moscow, thus rendering them irrecoverable.” we tell the European police organization, which has centralized the information coming from the ten countries concerned.

One million euros in damage in Warsaw

Because since 2022, suspicion has fallen on several Georgians, claiming to be academics, who asked to consult in the largest European libraries original editions of the jewels of 19th century Russian literature: Alexander Pushkin, Nicolas Gogol or Leo Tolstoy. The director of the library of the University of Warsaw resigned after the theft of the entire collection of Pushkin editions (more than a million euros in damage), that of Vilnius estimates the loot stolen by The thieves.

In Lyon, he fled with an 1825 edition of Boris Godunov

Some flee directly with the works, taking advantage of staff inattention, like the ENS of Lyon, where an edition of Boris Godunov from 1825, estimated at €70,000, disappeared, as Le Parisien clarified. Others have a much more elaborate technique: claiming very specific research, they come several times and spend hours studying the works, photographing them, measuring them meticulously. Afterwards, several libraries noted that the original books had been replaced by very well executed forgeries. Nine extremely rare editions of Pushkin and Lermontov were stolen from the BNF de l’Arsenal, in the fourth arrondissement of Paris, between March and October last year. Estimated cost: €650,000!

“He seemed quite suspicious, insistent”

Faced with these thefts, an alert is broadcast via professional library networks, and an investigation opened by police officers from the Central Office for Combating Trafficking in Cultural Property (OCBC). And university officials are opening their eyes. They are right.

“A Russian-speaking user showed up the week of October 2, 2023 at the Ramon Llul library asking if we had such editions. He left quickly since we did not have any old works in Russian. As he seemed quite suspicious, insistent, we contacted the police department responsible for the investigation” we indicate at Paul-Valéry Montpellier University 3. The police examined the video surveillance images of the campus, but the individual visibly scouted does not seem to have been one of those they had already identified .

Arrested on arrest warrant at Brussels airport

At the beginning of November 2023, Mikheil Z., a 48-year-old Georgian, wanted on an arrest warrant for the Vilnius and Warsaw flights, was arrested at Brussels airport. He is also the mysterious researcher who also stole the works from the BNF. At the end of November, Valerian R., a 57-year-old Georgian, was in turn imprisoned in France after being arrested in Doubs.

The latest arrests complete the picture already drawn up by the OCBC police officers: a network “structured, organized and itinerant, composed of experienced criminals”, certainly attracted by the lure of profit and the low risks of these very profitable thefts. But the hypothesis of a large-scale project “aiming to repatriate this precious cultural heritage which has become symbolic and identity” is not excluded, in a Russia obsessed by nationalism and whose master of the Kremlin never ceases to praise the identity, even the cultural superiority.

Thefts of old maps already judged in Béziers

The affair also reminds us that our libraries contain real treasures, which must be protected from covetousness. In February 2022, a network made up of Poles and a Hungarian, in cahoots with an antiques dealer from Berlin, was heavily sentenced in Béziers for stealing 82 geographical maps, cut out from 16th century books, notably from the faculty library. of medicine in Montpellier, but also in Avignon and Clermont-Ferrand.

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