In the early morning hours of January 30, a gang of thieves, in a carefully coordinated scheme, broke into a warehouse near London’s Heathrow airport and made off with over £2 million in rare books. The books, belonging to three different rare book dealers, were being shipped to the United States for the 50th Annual California International Antiquarian Book Fair this past weekend.
In total, the thieves stole over 160 books, mostly incunabula and early printed works from the 15th through the 16th centuries, including a 1566 copy of Copernicus’s De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium worth an estimated £215,000.
After scaling the warehouse, the thieves bored holes through reinforced skylights, then descended into the warehouse via ropes, without disturbing any of the building’s motion sensors. Once inside, the thieves pried open six specific containers, ignoring a variety of other valuable merchandise in an effort to find the rare books. They seem to have compared the books against a master list, as they left quite a few books behind. In total, the theives may have spent several hours inside the warehouse.
The thieves were likely stealing “to order,” based on a list generated by a collector. The books, all known titles, would be impossible to sell on to a reputable dealer or auction house, so are almost certainly headed to a private collection somewhere.
Brian Lake, of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (UK), said to The Daily Mail, “Quite honestly I have never heard of a heist like this involving books - it is extraordinary.”
Statement from the ABA:
A break-in took place at warehouse in Feltham on the night of January 29th. We understand that it was a well-planned operation and the thieves abseiled through the roof to avoid alarms. Antiquarian books in transit to a book fair in California were stolen. Some of the books were over 500 years old, and the total value may run into hundreds of thousands. Investigations are ongoing and the ABA is doing everything it can to establish the full extent of the thefts and assist police in the recovery of the missing books. We have an excellent national, and international, communications network in place, which has helped recover many lost and stolen items in the past, and we are confident that we will be able to help on this occasion too.
Full details of the stolen books can be found at stolen-book.org.
If you are offered any of the titles on the list, please contact David.A.Ward@met.pnn.police.uk of London’s Metropolitan Police.