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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Rare Copernicus Among Stolen Books

ST. PETERSBURG -- Librarians at the Russian Academy of Sciences have discovered that 23 rare books are missing from their storage rooms, including an edition of Nicholas Copernicus' "On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres."

It is not yet known exactly when the books were stolen. The last recorded time they were used by anyone was in November 1998, the library said last week.

"The fact that the books had disappeared was determined only after library employees heard the book was about to be sold by auction in the United States," library director Valery Leonov said.

According to Leonov, when the U.S. auction house's security team sent out a report that they were selling a copy of the Copernicus work, the library management checked on their copy. Only then did they realize the book was missing.

"On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres" was published in Nuremberg in 1543 while the author was still alive, and was dedicated to Pope Paul III. At the beginning of the 17th century, the book was banned by the Inquisition, so there are now just 107 original copies left in existence.

In 1998, other copies of Copernicus' work were stolen from libraries in Kiev, Ukraine and Krakow, Poland. According to the Kommersant newspaper, St. Petersburg police believe that the three thefts may be connected, and may have been committed by an international crime group.

Irina Belayeva, deputy director at the library, said the insurance value of the stolen Copernicus book is estimated at $100,000. Another missing book, by astronomer Johannes Kepler, is also worth at least $100,000, and the other 21 books, published in the 17th and 18th centuries, are also considered valuable, she said.

"The books were stored in the rare publications department, and just 10 employees had access there," Belayeva said.

St. Petersburg police are investigating the 10 employees, although the library's management, including Belayeva, refuses to believe they could have done anything wrong. "All of them have worked in the library for more than 10 years and none of them has ever done anything suspicious," Belayeva said.

This is the second time in recent years that the library has been the victim of theft. Two years ago, Dutch customs officials arrested a man who was trying to take a collection of ancient maps out of Holland - maps that were later discovered to have been stolen from the Academy of Sciences' library.