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Tome raiders: the story of a £2 million rare book heist

Antiquarian bookseller Brian Lake on a movie-script style robbery involving works by the likes of Newton and Da Vinci

16 February, 2017 — By Dan Carrier

Brian Lake at Jarndyce Books, in Great Russell Street

IT sounds like a pitch for caper movie. A trio of acrobatic thieves climb onto the roof of a Heathrow warehouse and, using drills, bore holes into a fibreglass skylight. From there, they lower themselves gently down on climbing ropes, avoiding tripping the motion sensors, and make off with rare books, among them tomes penned by the Renaissance scientists that shaped the way we view the world today.

But this is no film script. It was the scenario facing detectives at the end of January, when persons unknown spent a Sunday night rifling through crates destined for one of the most prestigious antiquarian book fairs in the world. Their haul of more than 160 books dating from before 1500 to the 17th century is reckoned to be worth more than £2million.

Owned by dealers based in Germany, Italy and London, they were heading to the Oakland Book Fair in California and included titles by Leonardo Da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Galileo and a 1566 tome written by the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, that outlined his revolutionary idea that the Sun was at the centre of our universe.

But the books rarity and uniqueness offers the daring gang a problem of how to sell them on, and the police a conundrum: were they stolen to order by a wealthy bibliophile who somehow knew they were in transit – or did the thieves just get lucky? When an antiquarian book goes missing – and such thefts are not unknown – the close-knit trade shares as much information as they can, as swiftly as possible, to ensure that should a book of this type be offered to a bookseller, alarm bells ring.

In Britain, the man responsible for keeping dealers informed is Kentish Town resident and antiquarian book expert Brian Lake. With his wife Janet and son Edward, he runs Jarndyce Books, in Great Russell Street in Bloomsbury, and is the security officer for the Antiquarian Booksellers Association.

The ABA collates lists of stolen books so that, if they are offered for sale, they can be returned to their rightful owners and, hopefully, the thieves apprehended.

It meant when the theft was discovered, Brian was one of the first to know.

“We wanted to keep it quiet,” he says from his book-filled office overlooking the British Museum’s forecourt.

“The books are easily identifiable and all fully described so we expected them to appear fairly quickly, but they didn’t.

Isaac Newton, Nicolaus Copernicus and Leonardo Da Vinci

“We knew the news would break out at some point, but we had hoped the thieves would have tried to sell them on before they realised the alarm had been raised among book dealers.”

So does Brian think somewhere out there is a mega-rich super-villain who also happens to be an avid bibliophile? For those who love a cops and robbers yarn, the answer may disappoint.

“I don’t believe they were stolen to order,” he says. “The warehouse is used for transferring books and it doesn’t normally store them over the weekend. However, this time there was a consignment from Europe that was waiting for UK books to be included before going to the USA.

“They would have had a much bigger selection to choose from if they had left it until Monday night.

“They worked out that somehow they could climb in through the roof, but I don’t think they knew what was going to be in there. They would have looked inside the crates – they would have been sealed with flimsy padlocks so customs could check them – and they would have found lists of books with prices. They simply could have searched to find what was worth most.

“I had thought we’d hear about them being offered about in the first week but there hasn’t been a sniff of them. They are very distinctive books and easily identified. My view is the people who nicked them were dazzled by the pound signs, and thought they’d see what they are worth.”

Jarndyce has shelves that groan with classics – but run an eye along the spines and it’s much more than just Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens. There are quirkier titles to spot: Quacks of Old London, The Amber Witch, Knock Knees and Bow Legs, Strange Survivals, Discourses on Human Life, The Flowers of Anecdote – the list is endless. Brian started book dealing in 1969. He studied at York and with a fellow graduate, Chris Johnson, set up Jarndyce, which specialises in 18th and 19th-century English books.

They were partly prompted by the many secondhand bookshops in the city where they had studied. Brian puts together catalogues based on themes. For example, this week he has been collating books relating to sex, medicine and psychology in the Victorian era – so one shelf holds copies of books by Marie Stopes on one side, and others warning of the evils of masturbation and pre-marital sex on the other.

He gets his stock from book fairs, markets and scouring other shops. He is also offered people’s collections to purchase.

“Most of the books we are offered aren’t worth buying or are worth very little, and that applies to most secondhand books; there are very few books which sell for hundreds or thousands of pounds – let alone tens of thousands,” he says.

“The crucial aspects are – who is the author, what edition is the book and the condition it is in. But you can get one title by an author that is worth about £10, then another by the same person that will fetch £1,000.

“People buy for different reasons and the idea of the old-fashioned collectors who buy up an author and try to complete a collection of first editions works are less common now.”

As for personal favourites, he says: “I love Dickens – I try to re-read one or two of his novels every year.”

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