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October 16, 2020

THE GREAT BOOK HEIST

STORIES FROM THE APPLEWOOD MANOR

The grand Lady on the Hill, the Biltmore Estate, has had her share of mysteries played out in its grand rooms and behind its secret doors and passageways. In fact, it was during the filming of the movie The Private Eyes that the Estate manager discovered they had become the victim of Asheville’s Great Book Heist!

Out of all 250 rooms in the Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s library, an inviting two-story room filled floor to ceiling with his books, often ranks as the guest’s favorite. Vanderbilt’s book collection consists of approximately 24,000 volumes. The library room contains 10,000 of those books. The remaining volumes are located in the den, smoking room, hallways, and in storage at the Biltmore. The strengths of the Vanderbilt collection are 19th century English and American fiction, including many first editions, art and architecture, history, travel, philosophy, and religion.

While Tim Conway, who was starring in the movie, was touring the remarkable library, a Biltmore employee offered to show him a 1756 edition of Samuel Johnson’s “A Dictionary of the English Language,” but it was not in its usual spot. Estate managers immediately contacted the authorities when they discovered that the two-volume set, valued at $7,500, was missing. When they hastily inventoried the Estate’s collection, they discovered that the apparent book heist was much bigger than just the Samuel Johnson work. The inventory disclosed 234 missing items, including an $80,000 portfolio of Goya etchings, a 1797 copy of “The Book of Common Prayer,” Edmund Spenser’s “The Fairie Queen,” Muybridge’s 1887 Animal Locomotion worth $100,000, volumes by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, the Brothers Grimm, and other items.

Local authorities called in the FBI, and agents said they believed the case to be “one of the largest of its kind in the United States.”

THE GREAT BOOK HEIST, The Applewood Manor

The mastermind for the theft was an unlikely thief, but one not very adept at the clandestine profession he had chosen. Unlikely because he was a well-educated Harvard graduate. During 1979 and 1980, he had worked as a nighttime guard at the mansion. He was Robert Livingston Matters but also used the alias, Rustem Levni Turkseven. He had another job—one that would make him a prime suspect when the theft was discovered. He owned the Plane Tree Book Store, an antique bookbinding shop, located in downtown Asheville. Once the FBI focused on Matters, the pieces began falling in place. It seems Matters had been suspected of antique book thefts from other libraries, all reluctant to disclose their loss lest they would be criticized for weak security. The Harvard graduate ultimately pleaded guilty to four counts of interstate transportation of books, photographic plates and etchings and received a sentence of five years in prison.

With the help of the FBI and Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Austin all 234 items were eventually tracked down and recovered from locations across the country and Europe.


Asheville has been called many things—weirdest, happiest, quirkiest place in America, Santa Fe of the East, New Age Capital of the World, Paris of the South, Beer City USA, Most Haunted, Sky City and others. It has many secrets, mysteries, and legends—some factual, some alleged, some exaggerated and some just plain lies.

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THE GREAT BOOK HEIST, The Applewood Manor

62 Cumberland Circle, Asheville, NC 28801 | 828-254-2244 | contact@applewoodmanor.com


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