April 26, 2013

Lambeth Palace recovers 1,400 stolen publications, thanks to thief’s note


A sealed letter from a former employee of the library at Lambeth Palace, home to the Archbishop of Canterbury, revealed the location of thousands of books he had stolen from Lambeth almost four decades ago. Though the Palace was notified in 2011, the story has only recently hit the news. (The library did not want to release the news until the books were recovered and available to readers; forty percent of the recovered books are now restored to the library’s online catalogue.)

When a librarian noticed a gap in the shelves in 1975, sixty volumes were suspected to be missing. Booksellers in the UK and abroad were on the lookout for these rare editions, but none turned up. In fact, 1,000 books were recently recovered from the thief’s attic, and a grand total of 1,400 publications were eventually found to be in his possession. Many were among the collections of three 17th century archbishops of Canterbury: John Whitgift, Richard Bancroft and George Abbot.

In February 2011, a new librarian at Lambeth Palace received a letter written by the thief, forwarded to a solicitor after his death. It contained a full confession of the theft and detailed instructions about where the books were stored. The report carefully avoids disclosing the name or location of these books: “The librarian and a colleague were dispatched to a house, where they discovered a vast quantity of books hidden in the attic, along with three drawers of cards from the old catalogue,” reports The Spectator.

“We were staggered,” said Declan Kelly, director of libraries and archives for the Church of England, in an interview with the BBC. “A couple of my colleagues climbed into the attic. It was piled high to the rafters with boxes full of books. I had a list of 60 to 90 missing books, but more and more boxes kept coming down.”

How did so many missing books go unnoticed? The library’s contents were disrupted by World War II. Some 10,000 books were destroyed in a bombing that hit the library in May 1941, and most of the missing works were assumed to be among that number. Because the thief had also made off with the index cards that catalogued each of the stolen items, there was no record left in the library to arouse the other employees’ suspicion.

Among the missing: an early edition of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part Two; illustrated texts including Theodor de Bry’s America, which chronicles the earliest expeditions to the New World; the French Chirurgerye by Jacques Guillemeau and other medical books.

“The scale of the theft is quite extraordinary,” says Robert Harding, director of Maggs Bros, a London rare book dealer, who estimated that the copy of de Bry’s America could be worth £150,000, and the Shakespeare would be worth about £50,000. He told the BBC the others are also worth five-figure sums.

It seems the thief did intend to sell these books. He used chemicals to remove any marks of ownership, cut off the archbishops’ coats of arms from covers and removed some bindings.

“Damage affects the value a lot. A book without the arms may have lost 90% of its value. It’s cultural vandalism,” Harding added.

The Spectator discussed the contents and historical significance of the stolen books at length, as well as the legacy of the library:

In his will Bancroft stated that his greatest desire was that his library be passed intact to the archbishops of Canterbury ‘forever’; and his successor, George Abbot, mandated that each new archbishop in perpetuity be responsible for the value of any book lost or stolen. If in 1975 Archbishop Donald Coggan had been informed about this stipulation, he might well have had cause for alarm. And if the unsettled debt were to pass from archbishop to archbishop, Rowan Williams could have counted the retrieval of the books as one of the few blessings of his troubled archiepiscopacy.

London-based antiquarian bookseller Tim Bryars said, “I can understand why they didn’t reveal his name as there are other people out there who have stolen similar material, who if they saw someone else being named and shamed—even posthumously—that material could be for the bonfire.”

Remaining index cards indicate several books are still missing, among them the magnificently illustrated Mariners Mirror (1588), with its 45 engraved maps of the coasts of Europe.

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.