How a Book Thief Forged a Rare Edition of Galileo’s Scientific Work, and Almost Pulled it Off


A cou­ple of weeks ago, we pub­lished a post that fea­tured Galileo’s Moon draw­ings, “the first real­is­tic depic­tions of the moon in his­to­ry.” As it turns out—some read­ers alert­ed us—some of the Moon illus­tra­tions attrib­uted to Galileo are actu­al­ly very con­vinc­ing forg­eries, so con­vinc­ing, in fact that when the draw­ings sur­faced in 2005, they ini­tial­ly swayed such experts as rare books deal­er Richard Lan, Har­vard pro­fes­sor of astron­o­my and his­to­ry of sci­ence Owen Gin­gerich, and art his­to­ri­an Horst Bre­dekamp. All of these experts have since come to learn—partially through the inves­ti­ga­tions of Geor­gia State Uni­ver­si­ty his­to­ri­an Nick Wild­ing—that an unusu­al edi­tion con­tain­ing detailed water­col­ors, pur­port­ed­ly in Galileo’s own hand (above and below), was in fact cre­at­ed by forg­er, book thief, and for­mer direc­tor of the State Library of Giro­lami­ni, Mari­no Mas­si­mo De Caro, who now stands accused of steal­ing thou­sands of vol­umes, includ­ing cen­turies-old edi­tions of Aris­to­tle, Descartes, Galileo and Machi­avel­li.


The draw­ings we fea­tured at the top of our pre­vi­ous post—from a set of five inkwash­es made in 1609, called “the Flo­rence Sheet”—are gen­uine, as are the etch­ings in the orig­i­nal text of Galileo’s sci­en­tif­ic trea­tise, Sidereus Nun­cius. How­ev­er, as inves­tiga­tive reporter Nicholas Schmi­dle doc­u­ment­ed in a lengthy arti­cle pub­lished in last December’s New York­er, the edi­tion pic­tured above—purchased for half a mil­lion dol­lars by Richard Lan of rare book­sellers Mar­tayan Lan and once val­ued at over ten mil­lion dol­lars for its unique rust-col­ored illustrations—is a fake, despite being authen­ti­cat­ed by a team of schol­ars in 2007.

The sto­ry of how De Caro’s forgery came to fool near­ly every­one who exam­ined it (end­ing up in Time mag­a­zine and dozens of oth­er pub­li­ca­tions and schol­ar­ly web­sites) is a long and wind­ing tale. Like many forg­ers, De Caro act­ed out of a mix­ture of greed, envy, and a desire to prove him­self to a field he felt did not rec­og­nize his tal­ents (De Caro also forged a copy of Galileo’s 1606 Com­pas­so to replace a stolen ver­sion). A col­lege dropout, he “held an impe­ri­ous grudge against peo­ple who had spent years study­ing in libraries,” writes Schmi­dle. Instead, De Caro had earned an hon­orary pro­fes­sor­ship by donat­ing four Galileo edi­tions (pre­sum­ably gen­uine) and a chunk of mete­orite to a pri­vate insti­tu­tion in Buenos Aires. More than just a sto­ry of fraud and theft, De Caro’s is one of aca­d­e­m­ic impos­ture. In 2006, for exam­ple, he par­tic­i­pat­ed in a pan­el dis­cus­sion on Galileo at Ford­ham Uni­ver­si­ty, and despite the skep­ti­cism of actu­al schol­ars, his exper­tise was trust­ed in the rare books and muse­um worlds until his dis­cov­ery.

Accord­ing to Schmi­dle, De Caro and an accom­plice artist aged sev­er­al bot­tles of nine­teenth-cen­tu­ry ink to cre­ate the Galileo draw­ings, using the Flo­rence Sheet as a guide for the sev­en­teenth-cen­tu­ry astronomer’s hand. After open­ing a bot­tle of red wine, he had his accom­plice trace the out­line of the moons with the foot of his wine­glass. Then they baked the pages in his home oven to age them. It’s hard to believe De Caro’s fake sur­vived scruti­ny for over five years, until Wild­ing began to express his doubts in 2011. Though fac­ing sev­er­al years in prison, De Caro hopes to work some­day with the F.B.I., help­ing them dis­cov­er forged and stolen books. He cites famous con man Frank Abag­nale, played by Leonar­do Di Caprio in the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, as an inspi­ra­tion. “I want to do for books what he did for checks,” says De Caro. “I can help them find all the black, off­shore accounts of all the book­sellers.” Read a fac­sim­i­le of Schmidle’s arti­cle here. And for more on De Caro’s brazen crimes, see this detailed Exam­in­er arti­cle.

Relat­ed Con­tents:

Galileo’s Moon Draw­ings, the First Real­is­tic Depic­tions of the Moon in His­to­ry (1609–1610)

Meet “Father Phil­an­thropy”: America’s Most Pro­lif­ic and Unlike­ly Mas­ter Art Forg­er

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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