On Transylvania's Campus The Day of the Transylvania Book Heist; New Movie American Animals Shows that Wild Day Unfold

I struggled with opting to write this blog post about the current box office movie titled American Animals. I have not stepped foot inside a movie theater since 2009. I’m not a movie person but more of a sports fan and if you knew me the thought of taking Two hours to sit down and chill is very much a challenge for me.  But American Animals was different. It wasn’t just any movie to see. It centers around a major art & book heist, one of the most lucrative in the entire world that involved rare, I mean RARE books of Charles Darwin’s On  The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection from 1859, the horticultural masterpiece Hortus Sanitatis published in the 1500's (think about how old that is), rare pencil drawings from the 1850's by John James Audubon and Four HUGE Double sized Folios of Audubon’s Birds of America. Absolutely stunning pieces of art, just google them!  This American Animals movie – wasn’t just any movie but a real day, a real life event that took place here in Lexington, Kentucky in December 2004.  The events that transpired that day landed us here for this blog post today. American Animals is about Four college students and their brazen plan to steal rare books worth millions from Transylvania University and to sell them oversees to a major buyer on the black market or to a major American auction house. Which they did try to sell them to Christie's Auction House in New York City the weekend after they stole the books. This movie isn't based off a true story, it really is a true to life story!

American Animals is a flashback to a day in my life nearly 14 years ago. Before I began my real estate career full-time, I worked in Public Relations at Transylvania University here in Lexington, KY. I actually obtained my real estate license in early 2004 and started working on the weekends for a builder learning new home construction in Versailles and Georgetown, Kentucky. During the week, I worked in Public Relations at Transylvania University. I left my Transylvania job in 2005 and started my full-time real estate career.  

I always said the Public Relations office at Transylvania was that center hub where all the calls came in for nearly everything involved with running a highly ranked University. If another office at the school couldn’t help you, they transferred your call to us. We loved it though. We had a great office of caring individuals and always wanted to make sure everyone had a good positive experience of our school.  On that Friday, December 17, 2004, the morning started out like all of the other mornings that week. It was super quiet as the students were taking final exams so campus was beyond calm. Our office was in the Old Morrison building, the gorgeous white painted brick Greek Revival building on campus. You can’t miss it. It’s a Lexington landmark and on the city seal for the city of Lexington and next door to the library. That morning one of our student workers came into work between finals. We were working on writing and sending press releases to the community newspapers across Kentucky featuring our students when the phone rang and the caller asked to be transferred to the Special Collections department. OK no problem. Our office received that type of call many times a week. In all my years working in the office, I have transferred that call over 100 times. When I placed the phone back down on the receiver I remarked to our student worker that something was odd about that call. I do not know who the caller was and will never know. And I sure do not know if was coincidence or if it was related to the events about to go down on campus but it was odd.  I can’t describe it, but when they say to always trust your instinct, trust it and in a big way!   About an hour later the campus police called our office and said there had been a robbery at the library.  I jumped up and went to track down my boss and our University President who were in the same meeting. The next several hours were crazy. Just CrAzY! The police and media swarming campus and wanting information, us trying to gather information and distribute information. During their escape from the library and almost on the verge of being caught, the men dropped the Audubon Birds of America folios and ran. They underestimated the size and weight of those rare 200 year old Audubon books, which they were well aware of the $12 million dollar price tag those had brought on the auction block Four years earlier on another known existing set in the world.  They did manage to steal the 1859 first edition of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a set of the horticultural masterpiece Hortus Sanitatis along with about 20 or so original Audubon pencil drawings, thus cashing in with huge ticket of nearly $750,000 worth of books. 

Over the next couple of months we worked with Lexington police, the FBI and campus police as they worked extremely hard to solve the case. Very grateful for all the hard work and dedication of those organizations as well as others put into this case. Those books and works of art were apart of the wonderful Transylvania heritage that myself, a graduate of the school and someone with a deep love for Transylvania cared so deeply about. That is why I struggled with this movie. I didn’t want to see it and support those individuals because I knew they would somehow profit from the movie. But at the same time, It was reality. A real actual day in my life that I experienced and felt connected to. And an event that I have continued to follow over all these years, from following the news about the prison sentences all four men served, to the 2007 Vanity Fair article, to their release and to the present day. Overall, I thought the movie was well done. And it was insightful to hear the perspective of the actual men involved. Out of the Four men, only one had been a Transylvania student. To this day and I saw the movie about Three weeks ago, I still feel a connection to the lone Transylvania student. I believe he is currently remorseful for what happened or least I want to think that. As he said their adventure was never worth the pain that he caused his family or our librarian. I hope he really means that. 

Less than Seven months after the heist, I left my job at Transylvania to jump full time into real estate. My childhood dream and passion to work in real estate came to life. But I always look back fondly on my undergraduate years at Transylvania and my Four years working there post-graduation.  Transylvania had a great campus community then and still does today. This experience was one of the times in my early adult life, where I was able to witness and experience individuals of all ages and backgrounds come together and unite.

See American Animals if you are interested. But I sincerely hope you take away an appreciation for the Transylvania University Special Collections department and the value it adds to the school and our community as a whole. Incredible resources are available in the Lexington, Kentucky community and so much history to explore and study. And please appreciate the value of a dedicated librarian who works very hard to this day to make these items available for our community. Transylvania is a special place and not every school has such rare books that are available for viewing, much less letting the community share in those resources.  Thank you to all of those members in our local community who worked so hard to help the University retrieve those items back so today’s generation and future generations can learn from them. They may have taken the books temporarily but they sure didn’t take away the heart of the Transylvania campus community of students, faculty, staff and alumni. Hail Transylvania!

Lexington Ky is always #1 in my book! Whether you want to buy a downtown condo, a custom walkout ranch on a golf course, or a horse farm in the country, I can help find the perfect home for you – as well as help you sell your home. In addition to Lexington Real Estate, I specialize in the nearby towns of Paris, Midway, Georgetown, Winchester, Nicholasville and Versailles.

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