A Boston book dealer paid half a million dollars in 2005 for an original printer’s proof of the “Siderius Nuncius,” Galileo’s most important work. The buyer did his due diligence, having the book authenticated by professors at Harvard University, the University of Padua and the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin.
But it was a fake. Nick Wilding, assistant professor of history at Georgia State, was sure of it. The book bore a stamp proclaiming it to be from the library of Federico Cesei, a 17th-century nobleman. But legitimate copies of the stamp had a small gap in their oval border. The stamp in the proof copy had a solid border, with no gap.
Later, Wilding came across a Sotheby’s catalog that contained a picture of another copy of the “Siderius Nuncius.” Both it and the supposed proof copy had the same typo on the title page — one that did not appear in other legitimate copies of the book.
Worse still, both the Boston and Sotheby copies came from the same person: Marino Massimo De Caro, who was arrested in May 2012 for stealing and selling at least 1,000 rare books from the Girolamini Library in Naples.
De Caro, a former Italian government employee, has since confessed to forging five copies of the “Siderius Nuncius” and five more of another Galileo book, the “Compasso.”
De Caro’s activities have become the biggest scandal in the rare-book world in more than a century. And Wilding has become known as an expert in his own right, asked to authenticate rare books and interviewed extensively about his experiences.
For someone who out-thought the experts and exposed a brilliant forger, Wilding is surprisingly downbeat about his triumph.
“This is pretty disturbing for academics,” he said, “because our entire enterprise relies on trusting our primary sources. If somebody’s putting out very high quality fakes, it puts our work in jeopardy.”