On the evening of the 29th January 2017, three thieves climbed onto the roof of a postal transit warehouse in Feltham, West London under cover of darkness. They bored holes through the reinforced glass-fibre skylights and rappelled down 40ft of rope, avoiding the many motion sensor alarms. The thieves then located their loot, piled it into 16 large sacks, and left, undetected, the way they came in.
These highly sophisticated burglars were part of an Organised Crime Group linked with a prominent Romanian Crime Family and the Clamparu Crime Gang. They had a history of involvement in similarly complex, high-value thefts across Europe, often using the same method of entry through the roof.
In this case, their target in this unassuming warehouse near Heathrow, was an exceptional collection of rare books that had been packed up ready to ship to a California book fair. The thieves made off with a haul of over 160 rare books, valued in excess of £2.5 million. Many of the books were considered of such historical and cultural importance that they were deemed irreplaceable.
Among the books stolen were a 1566 copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, worth about £215,000, a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, as well as early works from Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci and Francisco Goya.
Thanks to the scrupulous customs listings made on the consignments by the book dealers, ILAB was able to collate and circulate complete lists of the stolen books within days of the theft.
Authorities at the time did not know who was behind the theft, or what was to become of the books. It was speculated that they were ‘stolen to order’, as one anonymous source suggested;
“They would be impossible to sell to any reputable dealer or auction house. We’re not talking Picassos or Rembrandts or even gold bars – these books would be impossible to fence. It must be for someone specialist. There must be a collector behind it. The books belong to three different dealers working at the very top of the market and altogether they form a fantastic collection.”
For three years the Met worked in conjunction with operations across Europe, including the Romanian National Police and the Italian Carabinieri, to recover the books and bring the perpetrators to justice.
In June 2019, a series of 45 coordinated house searches and arrests - in the UK, Romania and Italy - led to several promising developments.
Then finally, on 16 September 2020, the investigation culminated in a house search in Neamt County, Romania, in which the books were discovered buried under the floors.
Across the rare book world, there has been a palpable sense of relief that these invaluable books have been found safe. It seems that, despite their subterranean hiding place, many of the books have remained in their original packaging and have emerged entirely unharmed. An ABA book fair bag was even spotted in one of the official photographs.
Whether the books remained in this condition due to the thieves’ fears of getting caught, or because they simply had no clue what to do with them, remains to be seen.
So far, thirteen individuals have been charged in the UK linked to this case and similar burglaries between December 2016 and April 2019.
Met police confirm that twelve of these individuals have already pleaded guilty and sentencing is due to take place over four days, beginning on Monday, 28 September.
Detective Inspector Andy Durham, from Specialist Crime South, said: “This recovery is a perfect end to this operation and is a demonstration of successful joint working between the Met and our European law enforcement partners in Romania and Italy - and at Europol and Eurojust. These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage. If it wasn’t for the hard work of Detective Constable David Ward and others in this Joint Investigation Team these books would have been sadly lost to the world forever.”
We tip our hats to you, Mr Ward.