Borges Manuscripts Lost

Two handwritten short stories presumed stolen from Square shop; nearly $1 million value

Two handwritten short story manuscripts by the Argentine modernist writer Jorge Luis Borges, held until recently in a safe in Harvard Square’s Lame Duck Books, have been lost and presumed stolen.

They were last seen on Nov. 12, at an antiquarian book fair held in Hamburg, Germany, where they were exhibited in a private booth by John W. Wronoski, the owner of Lame Duck Books.

The missing manuscripts, “Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote,” and “The Library of Babel,” both first published in early forms in 1939, are two of Borges’ most celebrated and influential stories.

According to Saúl Roll, a longtime employee at the bookstore, which sells rare books, art, and manuscripts, the Borges drafts are probably the only original copies of the stories in existence. The manuscripts, which have been in the Lame Duck collection for four years, were listed in the store’s catalogue at $450,000 and $500,000, respectively.

According to Roll, neither he nor Wronoski know whether the manuscripts were lost in Germany or in Cambridge.

Wronoski, in Miami for an art show, did not return requests for comment yesterday.

Roll discovered that the manuscripts were missing on Nov. 16, while the store was hosting an evening reception for booksellers in town for the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair. Roll had brought out the Borges collection in order to display the manuscripts to visitors, but found that the two stories were not in their usual place.

After searching the store and coming up empty, Roll and Wronoski filed reports on Nov. 17 with the Cambridge Police Department (CPD) and the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).

Roll said he has little doubt that the manuscripts were stolen, but that he does not know who could have taken them or how.

“It was someone who knew what they were,” Roll said, pointing out that none of the other items Lame Duck had brought to Hamburg—all of which were less valuable than the Borges manuscripts—went missing.

According to Roll, the recent trip to the expo in Germany was typical: a courier delivered trunks containing the manuscripts to the Lame Duck booth in Hamburg, and at the end of the weekend, the books were taken down from display, repacked, picked up by the courier, and shipped back to Cambridge.

Representatives at Interpol told Roll they would not begin their investigation until they received information from CPD, and Roll said he has not heard from either organization since he and Wronoski filed the original report. Lame Duck’s insurance company, according to Roll, is currently conducting its own investigation.

CPD spokesman Frank T. Pasquarello did not return a request for comment yesterday. The press office of Interpol’s U.S. branch was closed yesterday, and a representative reached at the main U.S. office declined to comment on the investigation.

Roll said any attempt to sell the drafts would probably take place on the black market. Since the manuscripts are unique, he said, legitimate collectors will immediately know to contact authorities if they see them up for sale.

A CROWN JEWEL

News of the missing manuscripts traveled fast in the small community of Borges collectors, and Wronoski and Roll have received e-mails expressing concern from manuscript collectors across the country.

Prominent Borges collectors Thomas F. Staley of the University of Texas at Austin and Jared Loewenstein of the University of Virginia (UVA) expressed sadness at the loss of the manuscripts yesterday.

“I’m hopeful that whoever took them for whatever reason will find a way to get them back where they belong, in hands were they can be protected and studied by scholars,” said Loewenstein, the founding curator of the massive Borges collection at UVA.

Though the two lost manuscripts were insured, their loss nevertheless comes as a great blow to the Lame Duck bookstore, which moved into its space in Harvard Square just last year. The Borges collection is one of its most prized possessions, according to Roll. Among many other Borges gems, their collection still holds a handwritten manuscript for “The Garden of Forking Paths,” another of the author’s major stories. That manuscript is listed at $450,000. The reason it is safe, Roll said with relief, is that it stayed in Cambridge during the Hamburg expo.

Borges, who died in 1986, seems to hang over Lame Duck Books as a sort of spiritual guide: the store is decorated with numerous portraits and sculptures of the writer, and Wronoski’s new art gallery, recently opened next door on Arrow Street, is called “Pierre Menard.”

“We are at a loss,” Roll said. He considers Borges—who held the Charles Eliot Norton professorship of poetry at Harvard in the late 1960s—to be the 20th century’s most influential writer, and “Pierre Menard” its finest short story.

Williams Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures Doris Sommer, who has taught Borges’ work in her graduate seminar on aesthetics, wrote in an e-mail that her reaction to the news “alternates between great sadness for the loss and humor, because of course both stories perform the joke typical in Borges of purposefully confusing original with copy.”

TOASTING BORGES

Last October, Roll attended a guest lecture at the Barker Center delivered by Iván Almeida, then of the Borges Center at Aarhus University in Denmark. Roll had brought his folder of Borges treasures to the lecture, and afterwards, he spread out the collection and invited everyone in the audience to take a look.

That same evening, Roll brought Almeida and his wife to the basement of 12 Arrow St., where he had been spending his days preparing Lame Duck Books for its opening. There were still boxes everywhere, he recalled yesterday, some filled with old, rare books, and others with champagne that had been delivered in advance of the grand opening celebration.

Roll said he brought out the Borges manuscripts, opened one of the bottles of warm champagne, and set up some boxes as seating for him and his guests. The three of them sat among the still-packed books, “smoking the night away,” talking about Borges, and examining the manuscripts.

“The Library of Babel” and “Pierre Menard” were among them. Now, Roll says, he can only hope that they will be recovered.

—Staff writer Leon Neyfakh can be reached at neyfakh@fas.harvard.edu.