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Tomb Raiders of Books

abstract: Perhaps a little less glamorous than a theft in the art world, book thievery hit the headlines this week in the U.K. with some rather stunningly expensive and intriguing robberies. On average the BBC reports that shoplifters make off with around $750m worth of books a year, small change to these professionals. “Jacques is one of a handful of highly intelligent, well-educated criminals who operate in the somewhat murky world of international antiquarian book traders, collectors and curators. They successfully plunder priceless tomes, manuscripts and ancient maps, while the players in this closed world - the national and international libraries, the dealers and the victims themselves - largely remain silent about what is going on.”
Photo:King George III's library collection encased in its glass temperature-controlled column at the center of the British Library, St Pancras


February 14, 2009
Sandra Laville, the crime correspondent for The Guardian newspaper (Jan 17, 2009) in the U.K. is referring to forty year-old William Simon Jacques, a master of disguise with an IQ in the genius ratings. He has been jailed for stealing £1m worth of ancient books from the British Library which included stealing;

• Galileo's Sidereus Nuncius published in 1610 and worth £180,000

• Kepler's Astronomia Novapublished in 1609 and worth £75,000

• Two copies of Sir Isaac Newton's Principia Mathematica published in 1687 and worth £135,000

After his sentence of four years Jacques was released and is now on the run again after skipping bail for another book related crime.

“He was arrested for stealing a 12-volume set of colour print books worth more than £50,000 from the Royal Horticultural Society's world-famous Lindley library but disappeared while on police bail. Many months on, the trail has gone cold. He is extremely bright, too bright to get caught, it is going to be very difficult to find him,’ said one investigator.”

What is rather worrying, as Laville points out, is that libraries, museums and dealers are battling with highly educated people in a very specialized area. For example David Slade who is the former president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association in the UK, and a dealer who has sold internationally since he was 17, has recently been given a custodial sentence for stealing £232,880-worth of extremely rare books. These books came from Sir Evelyn de Rothschild’s family collection, he is one of the most powerful financiers in the world, and had put Slade in a position of trust which he so thoroughly abused. Photo Credit: Rare Books Dealer

Obviously there is a tremendous amount of monetary gain involved but it is astonishing that these people will steal and damage items that are hundreds, sometimes even thousands of years old, destroying them for future readers and generations.

Another point that Laville illuminates is the secrecy that surrounds the book world and our response to book thievery.

“The British Library has led the way by admitting when it is the victim of theft. But while major international libraries alert each other to details of stolen books or descriptions of thieves, these do not always reach the antiquarian book trade and not all libraries are honest about falling victim to theft. ‘We all need to be a bit more grown up,’ said Jolyon Hudson, from Pickering and Chatto antiquarian bookseller. "[Libraries] are the curators of the nation's knowledge, and when they lose it they are somewhat embarrassed to admit that."

Laville in a recent interview with Jian Ghomeshi on Q Radio mentions that there is a level of embarrassment that the ‘protectors’ of these precious items feel, and how this often leads to secrecy and unfortunately does not help with the recovery of the books. Leading the way is the British Library who has been a victim of book theft three times in the last ten years. She goes on to say that the lack of publicity and spreading of the word about the thefts and the people behind them only perpetuates the situation as the dealers and buyers don’t realize that they may be dealing with stolen goods. These ‘gentleman thieves’ being intelligent and often wealthy sometimes settle out of court, some people claiming ‘hush money’ stops establishments from publicizing the cases.

It is a shame that people who should know the value of these items choose to steal and butcher them. Often these eccentric raiders of books claim such a love of them that they want to own and protect these items, but the selfishness to do such a thing is stunning, Laville herself says that;

“It is a destruction of knowledge that will never be passed on”.

Farhad Hakimzadeh an Iranian academic, unknown to the British Library at the time, stole maps and manuscripts from books, out of 150 items taken only 30 have been recovered, these are potentially lost from us forever. He received two years in jail this month, previous to this he had stolen almost £100,000 worth of books from the Royal Asiatic Society 12 years before and Laville flippantly adds that he will probably serve about half his time and get a library card on his first day out. She explains that the world does not find this a ‘sexy’ subject and there is just no funding available to track these people and the thefts that they get up to. Judge Derek Inman the judge at Jacques trial in Middlesex is quoted as saying that the stolen books were "immensely valuable", not only financially, but because of their "extreme rarity, irreplaceability and historical importance". Photo Credit: Farad Hakimzadeh, Antiquities Thief—Guardian UK

"If they had not been recovered, their replacement, I am sure, would have been impossible".

Follow-up Links

  • The Guardian Newspaper Article: The full article that appeared in the The Guardian January 17, 2009
  • The Q Radio Interview With Sandra Laville
  • Illicit-cultural-property blogspot This blog is written by a student in an early-career teaching fellowship at the University of Loyola New Orleans School of Law. It concerns public and private law relating to arts and antiquities, and this blog is an extension of that work. It is a collection of [the author's] thoughts and reactions to news, events and current scholarship. The post on February 2, 2009 addresses Sandra Laville's Guardian article.



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