Antiquarian books worth more than £2 million have been stolen in a “unique” heist by a gang who dodged security by abseiling into a London warehouse, inspiring “disbelief” in the antiquarian book community.
The three thieves took more than 160 publications, many from the 15th and 16th centuries, after raiding the storage facility in Feltham between 29th and 30th January, according to the Guardian. Scotland Yard is now investigating.
The most valuable item was a 1566 copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, worth about £215,000. There were also works by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy. One dealer lost £680,000 worth of material, reported the Mail on Sunday.
Security committee chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA) Brian Lake told The Bookseller that he was shocked by the incident. “I can’t think of this happening here before," he said. "I felt an element of disbelief. It’s unique. This is completely off the map. I think it was an opportunistic crime, they knew how to get in and saw the books with the cutting lists and so realised the values. The idea that these were stolen to order belies the facts. That warehouse stocks books for book fairs round the world and doesn’t normally have them in the warehouse in the weekend."
The ABA hoped the stolen books might have been spotted when the thieves tried to sell them in the weeks following the incident. Lake said: “We hoped that there would be a period without publicity when they’d be offered, and that the books would be discovered this way. Maybe in a year or two they will be.
“The market is very much like the art market and others, a good condition book will sell, but 80% to 90% of the books are hard to sell. In the right condition antique books sell well but those in bad condition or the wrong editions are harder. A first portfolio Shakespeare worth millions of pounds but the vast majority of antique books are of low value for example tens or hundreds of pounds. The answer [when dealing with antiquarian books] is to deal with a reputable bookseller. One should look for a bookseller online rather than a book. It’s the apparent availability of things on the which has turned people into fake experts, normally I would say ‘it ain’t worth that much’.”
Lake, who is also a partner at Jarndyce Books Antiquarian Booksellers in Bloomsbury, does not believe the "Mission Impossible" style heist is part of a growing trend. He said: "I don’t think this sort of crime is set to increase. [This type of theft has] happened in Italy more than anywhere else. If you go back several years there were major thefts from libraries in Italy. We don’t normally have that problem here.” In 2012 there was a huge heist at the Girolamini library in Naples, reported The Economist. It emerged a government appointee with no library experience was convicted of stealing 1,400 rare books and imprisoned.
The ABA’s security system which informs the global book trade of thefts means it will be extremely hard for the thieves to sell the books. Lake said: “I believe these thieves they felt they’d struck lucky but because the ABA has such a good security system and all affiliated booksellers around the world would know within 24 to 48 hours as well as auctioneers and others in the trade."
The antiquarian book expert has been presented with stolen books before . He said: “If there is anything suspicious, we ask for information so we’re proactive as well as reactive. I think there are fewer thefts now because there's been a decline in bookshops. This particular case is most unusual and does not represent the trade for most people."
Anyone with information about the incident to contact the Metropolitan police on 101 or Crimestoppers anonymously on 0800 555 111.