There is a joke within the world of rare books, manuscripts and maps that “every rare book has been stolen at least once”. This strange and shadowy corner of the industry was illuminated lately by the mysterious case of Charles Darwin’s disappearing notebooks. Taken from Cambridge University Library somewhere between November 2000 and January 2001, they resurfaced in March this year, returned to the library in pristine condition, wrapped in clingfilm and placed in a hot-pink gift bag. The manila envelope was marked in capital letters with “Librarian. Happy Easter x”. 

It’s a news story that recalls the scandal of 2005-06, says Peter Barber, former head of maps at the British Library. An English dealer had come to see him with an American who seemed “nervous and off”. He didn’t ask for any of the usual favours – no special access pass, no out-of-hours tour. A few days later, when the library received a request for a photograph of a rare map inside a book, they found the map was missing. “I asked for a list of the people who had previously seen this book,” says Barber. “One was a Mr E Forbes Smiley.” Alarmed British Library staff checked the other volumes Smiley had examined. “Sure enough, maps were missing from those too.” Soon after Barber informed the police, he discovered that Smiley had been arrested at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, after dropping the X-Acto blade he had used to carve out the papers at the Yale Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. In total, Smiley was convicted of stealing some 97 maps valued at $3mn, from six institutions – though these numbers are suspected to be higher.

Rare books command huge prices. In the past year, Peter Harrington Rare Books, in London, has sold a Shakespeare Third Folio for £500,000, a first-edition On The Origin Of Species for £300,000, and is currently offering a rare Hakluyt complete with the Wright-Molyneux map for £800,000. But paradoxically, it’s not easy to make a profit from “priceless” books on the black market. “Unless you’ve got a James Bond villain stroking a white cat who just wants to hold these items, most rare notebooks are like the Mona Lisa – totally and utterly unsaleable,” says London antiquarian book dealer Bernard Shapero. Nevertheless, argues Barber, “a fair number of thefts are done on commission – for millionaires who are obsessive collectors. They retain them until they die, when they might be returned. That could have been what happened to the Darwin notebooks.” 

© Uijung Kim

At the other end of the spectrum are crimes of passion: in 1998 a Shakespeare First Folio went missing from Bishop Cosin’s Library at Durham University. Ten years later, recounts Pom Harrington of Peter Harrington, antiques dealer Raymond Scott “took it to the Folger Library in Washington and was arrested shortly afterwards. They knew instantly it was the one stolen from Durham.” Scott had tried to sell the book to cover his debts from a love affair with a Cuban cabaret dancer: they planned to share the proceeds of the sale. He was convicted of handling stolen goods and removing stolen property from the UK.

This library may have spoken up, but not everyone is so scrupulous. Says one collector: “If you go to some rare bookshops – I’m talking here from personal experience in Italy – they’ll tell you what they officially have. But if you get talking, the seller might pull out from under the counter some terribly rare 15th- or early-16th-century book.”

“The thieves that are most problematic are the klepto-connoisseurs – the book collectors who go wrong,” says Ed Maggs, security chair of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (ABA). “He or she – though I’ve never come across a female case – thinks it’s their right to have it; they believe that the book needs them.” Another industry insider points to a recent case of a collector with a high profile but light fingers. “He had a fabulous collection and lots of money but he still stole from bookshops and libraries.”

As recently as 2020, Oxford academic Dirk Obbink was arrested on suspicion of theft and fraud over stealing and selling Graeco-Roman papyri from the Oxyrhynchus project – the endeavour to publish half a million rediscovered ancient Egyptian papers – of which he was an editor. One collector recalls being shown the papyri by Obbink. “There are hundreds of thousands of pieces. Some were still in the old biscuit tins they were shipped in from Egypt, in the early 1900s. There was still sand on the papyri.” The collector is baffled by Obbink’s motive. “He often said, ‘I’m hopeless with money.’ But he never tried to sell me anything. He didn’t buy cars. He wasn’t a gambler. If he needed money, someone with his level of distinction could have made it legitimately through consulting.”

Today, it is increasingly common for book thefts to involve fraudulent bank orders. According to ABA company secretary Riley Grant, “parcel redirection is a big one”. Criminals buy books from reputable dealers then manipulate courier loopholes to make last-minute address changes – from where they collect the book, then scarper. More dramatic robberies include the 2017 heist carried out by a gang linked to the Clamparu crime ring, who abseiled through the roof of a warehouse near Heathrow where rare volumes by Galileo and Newton were being stored while in transit to a book fair. In 2020, the haul surfaced, damaged, having made its way to Romania via a rented house in Balham. The perpetrators were jailed. Pom Harrington was unimpressed. “We all just thought, ‘What idiots. What are they going to do with those?’’’

© Uijung Kim

More popular on the black market are fungible examples – not especially rare, but hard to tell apart: novels by George Orwell (which can go for four figures), first editions of James Bond (in mint condition, five figures), or the Harry Potter series (a particularly rare example of which recently sold for $471,000).

Trends in book thefts often follow cultural fashions. The late 1980s saw interior decorating styles that popularised botanical drawings, catalysed by brands such as Laura Ashley. Many were cut out of books and resold as individual prints. “Once you take a picture out of a book, how can you tell where it’s taken from?” says Shapero.

Stealing individual pages has become a specialisation. Maggs explains how Harvard- and MIT-educated Farhad Hakimzadeh, who mutilated and stole rare books from the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library, used “nothing as aggressive as a scalpel or a razor blade”, which would now be caught by library metal detectors. Instead, he laid “a long piece of wet string or cotton thread in the gutter of a book, and left it there”. Maggs clarifies: “I don’t know how long it takes because I’ve never done it myself... But apparently, when you go back to the book, the paper has softened and the page just pulls out.”

While the Metropolitan Police’s five-person strong arts and antiques unit, which investigates cultural heritage crimes (including the rarest books and manuscripts), reveals that it has two live cases, “I’m the real book detective!” laughs the ABA’s Grant. “I send out the alerts.” These alerts contain all known information about individual thefts and are circulated to members across some 25 countries. “The network is one of the key reasons that we’re able to return a lot of the books that we do,” she says: it is now all but impossible to steal a book in London and sell it in New York. 

© Uijung Kim

The current concern is for Ukraine, where more than 250 cultural institutions are suspected to have been damaged or destroyed. “When it comes to the devastation in Ukraine, who knows when the dust settles what we will discover. There is huge concern for what might have been lost, destroyed or stolen,” says Grant.

In 2021 the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) launched an international missing book register to make it harder to resell stolen volumes. The name “missing” is pointed. Fear of reputational damage is one of the key factors that has traditionally stopped book thefts being reported, despite their value. Sometimes this is because they are inside jobs (see the $8mn worth of books, maps and papers stolen from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh over 25 years by archivist Greg Priore); at others the books might have been misplaced or lost within the library itself – and no one wants to admit that. “It was a very big deal for Cambridge to admit they didn’t know where the Darwin notebooks were,” says Maggs. “But it’s a large part of the reason those notebooks were returned.” 

“Nobody wins if we don’t report a stolen book,” stresses Riley. Maggs adds, “It’s common that a stolen book is sold through a good faith transaction – but when that’s found out, everyone in the chain undoes their profit and the book is taken back to the owner.” The motto of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers says it all – amor librorum nos unit, or “The love of books unites us”.

Get alerts on Books when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article