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Case of the Missing Manuscripts is a Thriller at French National Library

Stolen rare manuscripts, a wealthy Israeli antiques dealer, underground passageways in Paris’ first arrondissement and a curator who maintains his innocence — it’s a story that could easily tempt Dan Brown to write a follow-up to his best-selling “The Da Vinci Code.” Michel Garel, who since 1980 has been the head of the Hebrew manuscripts division of the Bibliotheque nationale de France, or the French National Library, was arrested in July 2004 for allegedly stealing rare manuscripts, including five Hebrew manuscripts from the Middle Ages and 121 pages torn from precious manuscripts from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries.

Several anonymous letters to the president of the library had implicated Garel, though not by name. The accusations then were seconded by David Sofer, a London-based Israeli antiques dealer who said he bought a manuscript from Garel in 2000, without knowing it was stolen, for some $90,000.

Sofer said he had also bought other manuscripts from Garel, for up to $500,000.

The case against Garel collapsed on a technicality, but Sofer recently renewed his allegations. Garel was brought before an investigating judge in late June on suspicion of aggravated theft. No formal charges have been filed against him.

Initially Garel admitted to having stolen one manuscript, No. 52, believed to be among the oldest existing versions of the Torah, copied in France in approximately 1250 and bound in Italy in the 15th century.

He also admitted to forging a certification document to sell the rare Torah manuscript at a foreign auction. The manuscript was resold at Christie’s, the New York auction house, in 2000.

The day before his June court appearance, however, in a plot twist worthy of the best international thrillers, Garel renounced his confession, insisting that he was innocent of all the thefts and that he had told Paris police under duress that he had stolen manuscript No. 52 “in order to avoid being put in prison.”

“I never received so much as a centime for any piece belonging to the” library “or any other public collection,” Garel told France’s Le Figaro newspaper last week.

“I am the ideal whipping boy” for a massive security breach at the library, he said. Garel blamed his legal woes on the alleged vindictiveness of his superiors, with whom he said there was always tension.

The French National Library, founded in the 16th century and home to some 35 million books, documents, manuscripts, and other items, has refused to comment on the case, saying only that “the protection of the patrimony with which the library is entrusted is a constant concern.”

A financial investigation is also underway in Luxembourg, where Garel has a bank account.

Garel’s wife, Anne Boud’hors, has been charged as an accomplice, as the two allegedly used the money from the sale of pilfered rare manuscripts to buy an apartment. She appeared in court in late June.

Rumors that the library’s holdings aren’t secure have circulated since 1998, as various losses have been reported and then hushed up.

The lack of security is attributed in part to the 1998 transfer of the library’s holdings from its former home, in the first arrondissement, to a new building in the 13th arrondissement.

However, a report issued by the library last September acknowledged that books have been disappearing steadily since 1947 and that up to 30,000 texts are missing or lost.

Garel told Le Figaro that there were a number of underground passageways in the library’s former headquarters that led to the basements of nearby antiques dealers.

“I know of at least four places where anyone could have entered the library to take whatever they wanted,” Garel said.

Efforts to tighten security over the past year have been unsuccessful: Even since his arrest, Garel said, three more Hebrew manuscripts have disappeared.

Jean-Noel Jeanneney, the library’s president, told Le Figaro that the library is secure and not a “sieve,” as some media have alleged.

However, as Agnes Saal, the library’s general director, pointed out to Le Figaro, “Unlike museums, our documents are there to be consulted,” which makes securing them more difficult.

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