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Tome Raiders: Solving the Great Book Heist

When nearly $3.5M of rare books were stolen in an audacious heist at Feltham in 2017, police wondered, what’s the story?

The Guardian

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a stack of antique books against an orange background

A proper page turner: ‘The men had carefully avoided tripping motion sensors.’ Photo by duncan1890/Getty Images

Everything went exactly to plan. Late on the evening of 29 January 2017, Daniel David and Victor Opariuc parked up and made their way towards the Frontier Forwarding customs warehouse in Feltham, less than a mile from Heathrow. After cutting a hole in the fence, the men made their way to the side of the building and scaled a wall to the roof. There, they cut through a skylight and lowered themselves on to shelving inside the building. The warehouse burglar alarms stayed silent; the men had carefully avoided tripping motion sensors positioned by the doors.

Once inside, with several lookouts posted around the surrounding industrial estate, the men took their time. Over the next five hours and 15 minutes, they broke padlocks off packing cases and placed items inside 16 large holdalls taken from inside the warehouse. The men escaped the same way they had entered: out through the skylight and back into the night.

About 12 hours later, Alessandro Meda Riquier received a phone call from his shipping company. Riquier was at home in Italy when he learned that 52 valuable books that were meant to be on their way to a major trade fair in the US had been stolen. Riquier was one of three book dealers affected by the theft. In total, around 240 books and manuscripts were taken, including works by Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci and the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. The total value was estimated at more than £2.5m.

Riquier immediately called the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, a trade body for rare book dealers in the UK, providing details of the stolen items for circulation. Going through the list of missing books, he thought about the time the collection had taken him to assemble. Thirteen years before, he had given up a law career to pursue his passion for book collecting. “At one point of my professional life I said, ‘I don’t want to be a lawyer any more,’” he tells me. “I want something that gives me more satisfaction.” Riquier would spend months researching books before negotiating to acquire them. “I started from zero,” he says.

Now, more than half his stock had disappeared. The collection was insured, but that was only of limited consolation. “It’s not a question of money,” he says. The stolen items were not things you could “buy just around the corner”.

Historically, book thieves have come in two varieties. First, there are the rogue custodians, those who exploit their privileged access to literary treasures. In June this year, Gregory Priore, an archivist at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh, was convicted of stealing more than 300 rare books and other artefacts estimated to be worth around £6m over a 20-year period. Then there are the academics – or, at least, those who profess an academic interest in the texts they go on to steal. In 2009, Iranian author Farhad Hakimzadeh was convicted of stealing pages from as many as 150 rare books at the Bodleian and British libraries, smuggling a scalpel into reading rooms to remove maps and illustrations for his personal collection. The following year, William Jacques, a Cambridge University graduate dubbed the “Tome Raider”, was jailed for a series of thefts from the Royal Horticultural Society library. Jacques was believed to have carried out his crimes over several months, signing into the library under a fake name before walking out with rare books hidden beneath his jacket.

What these cases illustrate is that book theft is a slow and surreptitious crime. Thefts typically take place over many years. Sometimes, the books are taken for the thief’s personal pleasure. Alternatively, identifying marks are removed and the books are sold before anyone has noticed they are missing. But the Feltham heist was different. Several experts told me they could not recall a similar crime, in which hundreds of books had been brazenly stolen in a highly targeted raid. David Ward, a borough officer with Hounslow police, who was assigned to investigate the burglary, knew immediately that the break-in was the work of professionals. “They did it with a degree of finesse,” he says. “A less-sophisticated way would be just to jam a door open. But that obviously would trigger alarms. Going in via the ceiling, while quite dangerous, was the safest way for them not to be detected.”

During the investigation, Ward and his colleagues trawled through 50 hours of CCTV footage, eventually identifying two cars used in the burglary, and vehicle insurance records provided the investigation’s first lead. “It became apparent that the people we were identifying were Romanian nationals,” says Ward. “But they weren’t known to our criminal systems.” Around two weeks after the burglary, Ward received a phone call from a senior officer with the Romanian national police. Ward listened as the man recounted intelligence that connected the raid to an organised crime gang that operated out of Romania. Following the call, the two forces opened a joint investigation.

Over the subsequent months, officers linked the Feltham raid to a series of other burglaries at commercial warehouses across the UK. Elsewhere, the thieves had stolen high-value electronics rather than books. But the break-ins all carried the hallmarks of a professional team. As the scale of the gang’s activities began to emerge, the case was elevated to the Metropolitan police’s specialist crime squad, led by detective inspector Andy Durham, and Ward joined the team to assist with the investigation. Their first goal was to try to prevent further offences. “There was an ongoing risk to London and to the UK from this organised group,” says Durham. “But the other main objective was recovering these books.” That meant grappling with an unprecedented question: what might an organised crime gang want with a trove of rare books?

Like many an old-school copper, Dick Ellis can appreciate a well-executed crime. “This was one of them, no question,” he says. “Hats off to them.” Ellis, the former head of Scotland Yard’s art and antiquities squad, has investigated plenty of high-profile cultural thefts during his 30-year career. In 1994, he recovered Edvard Munch’s The Scream, three months after the painting was stolen from a Norwegian museum. That was a rare happy ending. Ellis says the recovery rate for stolen artworks is less than 5%. “It is abysmally low.”

According to Ellis, book theft has undergone an evolution over the past 10 to 15 years. “Prior to that, the theft of manuscripts and rare books was unusual, and quite often committed by people who had access,” he says, such as librarians and academics. But every new high-profile heist raises awareness of the fact that rare books are valuable enough to be worth stealing. At some point, “People realised that these were a comparatively soft target,” Ellis says. And it was only a matter of time before organised criminals spotted an opportunity.

Hetty Gleave, a partner at Hunters Law and a specialist in art and cultural property law, says the risks posed to rare books took longer to recognise than it did elsewhere in the cultural sector. “Books haven’t really featured on the radar in the same way that looted property or stolen art have,” she says, “partly because it takes people a long time to notice they’ve gone.”

In the past, the rarity of book thefts may also have contributed to a laissez-faire attitude when texts changed hands. Adrian Edwards, head of printed heritage collections at the British Library, says provenance checks by purchasers were carried out much less stringently in decades gone by. “I just don’t think they thought to ask the questions then,” he says. But in recent years the book trade has become more attuned to the need for robust checks around an item’s history. Today, Edwards says, “It’s more at the forefront of people’s minds.”

With increased awareness of provenance issues and the high-profile nature of the Feltham heist, how did the gang expect to sell the looted items? “It’s a good question, because what was stolen was so rare that you couldn’t have gone to a book fair anywhere in the world and been able to sell them,” says Ellis. Art sold on the black market tends only to fetch up to 10% of its open-market value, he adds. And while stolen artwork has been used as collateral in deals between crime gangs, “I don’t think that the criminal underworld would go into dealing in books as collateral in the same way as they do with fine art.”

The fact that the books stolen in Feltham would be easily identifiable was a reason to remain hopeful about their recovery. Privately, however, officers at the Metropolitan police feared a different outcome. As the investigation progressed, evidence emerged suggesting links between the gang and a notorious Romanian crime family. Intelligence provided by the Romanian police suggested the family had previously stolen valuable paintings and those paintings were believed to have been burned when the gang felt law enforcement tightening the net around them. “So, yeah,” says Durham, “we certainly had to tread lightly.”

In the early hours of 25 June 2019, Durham and Ward joined police colleagues from Romania and Italy at a Europol command centre in Rotterdam. More than 300 officers had been assigned to search 45 addresses in the three countries. In Rotterdam, there was an air of trepidation in the room as the officers waited nervously to see how the raids would play out. “It was very exciting,” says Durham, “and a long time coming.”

At 4am London time, police broke down doors across the continent and Durham and Ward started to tick off names of suspects as news of arrests came in. “We got the vast majority of people that we were hoping to find,” says Durham. By the end of the operation, 15 men were in custody. At one of the properties, officers found a holdall matching the description of those taken from Feltham, but there was no sign of the stolen books.

Durham says it was always an outside chance that the books would be recovered that day. Instead, the officers got back to work following up new leads. In the weeks after the first arrests, a further three members of the gang were apprehended. In January 2020, Cristian Ungureanu, one of the gang’s most senior members, was detained in Turin. Each time, the suspects were empty-handed.

Early on in the investigation, Riquier, the Italian book dealer, was hopeful. “In the beginning I said to myself, ‘They are probably going to recover the books,’” he says. As the case dragged on, however, his optimism wavered. Just as the police had fears about the likelihood of the books’ return, Riquier considered other scenarios. He wondered if the books would remain hidden for decades. At times, he imagined the books burnt to a pile of ash. “Even if I had been paid by my insurance company,” he says, “that would be the worst case that I can imagine.”

Thirteen men were eventually charged with offences related to a string of commercial burglaries across the UK, including the Feltham raid. Twelve pleaded guilty. In September this year, two weeks before the gang was due to be sentenced, the Romanian national police searched a house in the northeast of the country. Hidden in a cement pit beneath the floor, they found more than 200 individually wrapped packages. Shortly after the raid, Ward called Riquier. “I have good news for you,” he said.

Twelve men have so far been sentenced to more than 48 years in prison for their part in the burglaries. During their trial, the court heard how gang members were flown into the UK from Romania, then swiftly flown out again, with stolen property taken out of the country by different individuals. The crime wave was solved in part by analysis of DNA evidence found at the scene of some of the break-ins – a metal bar from Feltham, a drinks can in Southall, a half-finished bottle of milk in Milton Keynes. Most of the time, electronic goods had been stolen. Only one burglary involved the theft of rare books.

That may have been the gang’s downfall. The theft of such high-profile cultural property prompted the allocation of resources and a level of international co-operation that would probably never have been committed to investigate missing laptops. “Hopefully, it will make similar organised crime groups think twice about stealing items like that,” says Durham. “They know we won’t give up, we will turn over every stone, we will try every trick, and actually, they don’t want to be looking over their shoulders.”

Still, there are plenty of unanswered questions about the case. I ask Durham about the timing of the books’ recovery so close to the gang’s sentencing. Was this a coincidence? Durham laughs. “No, it’s not coincidence,” he says. But he declines to give more details, only stating that the raids were based on intelligence. A press statement issued by Eurojust, the EU agency for cross-border police cooperation, suggested the arrest of Ungureanu in January was a pivotal point in the investigation, describing him as a “kingpin” and stating that “his arrest and collaboration were decisive for the success of this important joint operation”. Asked to confirm if this was the case, the Met police said in a statement: “We would never confirm, nor deny, if any defendant has assisted police with the investigation.”

It also remains unclear how the gang knew where, and when, to strike. The books were only due to be stored at the warehouse for a weekend. “The natural assumption was to believe it was some sort of inside job,” says Ward. Officers followed that line of enquiry, but turned up nothing. “We did thoroughly look at all of those possibilities,” says Durham. “We were never able to work it out. And we were hoping one of the defendants might be kind enough to tell us after arrest and charge, but so far, that’s not been the case.”

If the gang had a buyer for the books in mind, it appears the transaction never took place. Dick Ellis suggests another possibility: that the gang acted on a tip-off about the location of the books, but never considered how they would be brought to market. “They hadn’t thought, ‘How do we now sell these on?’” he says. “And that would suggest to me these are very professional organised criminals who dipped a toe into an area that they’re not familiar with, and they hadn’t actually worked out what to do with the end product.” Ellis is full of praise for the investigation and the successful recovery of the books. But he also warns this won’t be the last time that antique books attract the attention of organised criminals. “They are collectible. They have a value,” he says, “and, therefore, they will be targeted.”

On the morning of 19 October, Alessandro Meda Riquier arrived at the Romanian National Library. Also in attendance were Andy Durham and David Ward, their colleagues in the Romanian police and two other book dealers who had items stolen in the Feltham heist. Over the course of two days, the dealers catalogued the books and assessed their condition. Of around 240 books that were stolen, four were still missing, according to the Met police. One in three had suffered some kind of damage. Riquier felt the outcome could have been much worse.

I spoke briefly to him after his return to Italy. He sounded relieved; his books had arrived safely just an hour before. I asked him about the atmosphere at the meeting in Romania. “Everybody was happy,” he recalled. “It was the end of a long story.”

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This post originally appeared on The Guardian and was published December 13, 2020. This article is republished here with permission.

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