February 16, 2017

A cool $2.5 million stolen in the “Great British Book Heist”


Storming a bank, guns blazing, is so passé. The sophisticated thief goes for antiquarian books.

In the early hours of 30th January, three thieves broke into a warehouse in west London, near Heathrow, and stole over 160 books worth $2.5 million. The books were being temporarily stored ahead of the fiftieth California International Antiquarian Book Fair, happening this weekend.

The stealthy thieves somehow, undetected, managed to climb on to the warehouse roof, drill holes into its skylights, and then abseil down forty feet of rope into the building, avoiding motion-sensor alarms. The press are likening the crime to a scene from Mission Impossible.

The raiders are said to have opened four crates, discarding the books they did not want, making the crime look like a carefully planned operation. The books were then placed in bags, hauled up ropes, pulled out through the roof, and transferred to a getaway van.

Alessandro Meda Riquier had fifty-one of his books stolen, including some by Galileo, two very rare editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy and a 1566 second edition of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, which was reportedly worth over $250,000. He told Adam Arnold of Sky News:

“I’m very upset because this is not something you can buy everywhere.

“Behind these books there is a lot of work because we have to search to try to find out where the books are—auction houses, collectors, colleagues—and there’s big research behind these books…. They are not only taking money away from me but also a big part of my job.”

Brian Lake, security committee chairman of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, told Heloise Wood of The Bookseller:

“I can’t think of this happening here before. 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 rare book market is estimated to be worth $500 million a year, and the theft of rare publications, especially those of a scientific nature, is speculated to be on rise. But who will buy these stolen editions?

Chris Marinello, CEO of London-based Art Recovery International and a leading art lawyer, told the Guardian’s Chitra Ramaswamy:

“The more publicity the crime gets, they more difficult it becomes to sell these items. Placing them on international databases, such as ARTIVE.org, which records stolen objects so they can not be sold knowingly in the marketplace, means reputable dealers and collectors will not touch them….

“It’s urgent at this point that the victims come forward and record these losses… In my experience the books will either turn up very shortly or when the criminals know they can’t sell them they’ll go underground and be traded or sold at 5%-10% of their true value. We might expect a ransom demand as well from someone looking to shake down an insurance company. The next few days and weeks are very important from an investigative point of view.”

So if you spot a bargain a bargain Copernicus being sold for $12,500, please — don’t buy it.



Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.