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Mission impossible: trying to flog a stolen 500-year-old Dante manuscript

Tome raiders have stolen more than 160 rare books by abseiling into a warehouse, but they may struggle to cash in on their £2m crime

The theft of rare books, manuscripts and maps is thought to be on the rise.
The theft of rare books, manuscripts and maps is thought to be on the rise. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

In a rare book heist described as “extraordinary” for its Mission: Impossible-style stealth, a gang of thieves has stolen more than £2m worth of antiquarian books from a London warehouse. The three tome-raiders evaded the security system by boring holes through reinforced glass skylights and abseiling 40ft on ropes into the repository. The haul of more than 160 books included a 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Copernicus, worth an estimated £215,000, as well as works by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The question is, what happens to the books now? How might they be sold? And who would buy them? “Criminals first try to cash out on these crimes,” leading art lawyer Chris Marinello, CEO of London based Art Recovery International, tells me. “They are looking for buyers and the more publicity the crime gets, they more difficult it becomes to sell these items. Placing them on international databases, such as ARTIVE.org, which records stolen objects so they can not be sold knowingly in the marketplace, means reputable dealers and collectors will not touch them.”

Marinello, who has been working to reduce the trade in illicit cultural heritage for three decades, explains that this, unfortunately, is when the “second crime” often takes places. “The books might then be broken up,” he says. “Some of the illuminated manuscripts and engravings contained therein might be traded in the art market, where many buyers don’t know they were cut out of rare books. It becomes a lot more difficult to trace.”

The theft of rare books, manuscripts and maps from libraries and other repositories is thought to be on the rise. An alarmingly titled conference at the British Library in 2015, The Written Heritage of Mankind in Peril, was prompted by two major heists at European libraries, both of which turned out to be inside jobs. What continues to confound the international rare book market – estimated to be worth $500m (£380m) a year – is how easily stolen books are fenced and resold.

So what’s the solution? “It’s urgent at this point that the victims come forward and record these losses,” Marinello says. “It’s really important to make these books unsellable by disseminating that information. That’s the key. In my experience the books will either turn up very shortly or when the criminals know they can’t sell them they’ll go underground and be traded or sold at 5%-10% of their true value. We might expect a ransom demand as well from someone looking to shake down an insurance company. The next few days and weeks are very important from an investigative point of view.”

Does he believe, as some are saying, that the books might have been stolen to order by a specialist collector? “I would strongly refute that,” he replies. “I think this was more likely similar to the Lufthansa heist in Goodfellas, where somebody had inside information that they were being kept in a warehouse and were particularly valuable. Then someone allowed that information to leak out, and criminals took advantage.”

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This entry was posted on February 13, 2017 by and tagged , .

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