Old books

A Masterful $2.5 Million Dollar Rare-Book Heist Stuns Community

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In an unprecedented incident in 2017, a group of unknown thieves rappelled down into a specially secured warehouse in Feltham, Middlesex in the early hours of January 30 th and made off with 160 rare texts that were being guarded at the facility.

According to reports, the thieves bore a hole through three reinforced-fiberglass skylights then rappelled down through the opening. Somehow, they avoided setting off the advanced motion detection security systems protecting the inside of the facility during this process and during the hours they spent inside.

A relatively modern copy (ca. 1911) of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a 16th century edition of which was stolen in the heist.

A relatively modern copy (ca. 1911) of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a 16 th century edition of which was stolen in the heist. ( CC BY 3.0 )

CCTV footage shows the thieves walking past expensive electronic merchandise and making their way directly to six sealed metallic trunks. Four of the trunks were pried open, and the thieves could then be seen throwing aside various texts inside as they hunted down their specific targets. It was noted that they examined a list as they looked for the books they were after. Once found, the texts were loaded into holdalls and carried back up and out the way that the men came in then lowered down the side of the building and placed inside a waiting van.

“I don’t know how they knew they were there. Maybe they hacked our email,” said a dealer based out of Italy who lost nearly $850,000 in books during the heist.

He was one of three dealers who suffered from the incident, though he lost what was considered the most valuable book of the heist: a 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus; which has an estimated value of about $267,000 dollars. The work is considered to be the prize jewel of the entire collection.

Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.

Nicolai Copernici Torinensis De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. ( Public Domain )

There was a number of other notable texts taken, including works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, Isaac Newton, as well as a rare 16th century edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy . All the texts were heading to the 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair.

A Work by Leonardo Da Vinci.

A Work by Leonardo Da Vinci. ( Public Domain )


Brian Lake, from the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, commented at the time that, “Nothing like this has hit the rare books trade before.”

This is, in part, because the books stolen would be incredibly difficult to fence on the black market. Which has led many to infer that this was a private order job contracted by a wealthy collector. Some familiar with the rare books environment have gone on to suggest that this is likely the work of a notorious and highly mysterious collector that’s become known as “The Astronomer”.

“Quite honestly. I have never heard of a heist like this involving books – it is extraordinary,” said Brian Lake.

It’s thought that this incident was related to a rash of high-profile book thefts that plagued eastern Europe and Russia, almost all relating to rare scientific texts, and all thought to be the work of the same collector.

Until this time there are no reports of the culprits being brought to justice.

The article ‘ A Masterful $2.5 Million Dollar Rare-Book Heist Stuns Community’ was originally published on MineTheHive and has been republished with permission.

Top image: Old books ( CC BY-SA 2.0 )

By Winston Hall

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