‘Mission Impossible’ raiders’ £2m heist in Great Book Robbery
Gang abseil 40ft down into warehouse They steal 160 of world’s rarest books But baffled experts ask: What will they do with them?
A GANG has stolen antiquarian books worth more than £2million after evading a complex security system by abseiling into a warehouse in a daring Mission: Impossible-style heist.
Three raiders climbed on to a roof, bored holes through reinforced glassfibre skylights and descended 40ft on ropes ‘like commandos’, somehow avoiding sophisticated motion sensor alarms.
They escaped with more than 160 books, many from the 15th and 16th Centuries, that were being stored in a warehouse near Heathrow before being flown to the United States.
In an astonishing display of audacity, they are thought to have spent several hours in the warehouse.
Experts say the ‘jewel’ in the haul was a 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. Worth an estimated £215,000, it contains his theory that the sun is at the centre of the universe.
Brian Lake, of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, said: ‘Quite honestly I have never heard of a heist like this involving books – it is extraordinary.
‘Nothing like this has hit the rare books trade before.’
There were also early works by Italian scientist Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Experts have been trying to fathom out what the gang might do with the books. They believe the most likely scenario is that they were stolen to order.
One source familiar with the case said: ‘They would be impossible to sell to any reputable dealer or auction house.
‘We’re not talking Picassos, or Rembrandts or even gold bars – these books would be impossible to fence.
‘It must be for someone specialist. There must be a collector behind it.
‘The books belong to three different dealers working at the very top of the market and altogether they form a fantastic collection.’
A dealer based in Padua, Italy, who lost £680,000 worth of books in the raid, including the Copernicus, said: ‘It was clearly a robbery done to order. It was a specialised gang. They took only books, nothing else.
‘I don’t know how they knew they were there. Maybe they hacked our email.’
Police said the raiders struck in Feltham, Middlesex, in the early hours of January 30. Inside, they were seen on CCTV ignoring expensive electrical goods and instead making straight for six sealed metal trunks containing the books.
They were being held at the depot ahead of this weekend’s 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair.
Four containers were prised open and, one source said, the raiders checked the books against stock lists, ‘throwing the ones they didn’t want away’.
The selected books were placed in holdalls, pulled up to the roof using ropes then lowered to a getaway van. Laura Chesters, of the Antiques Trade Gazette, said: ‘Some of the books are incunabula, which means they are from the first half-century of printing – the second half of the 15th century. The international rare book associations have been alerting the trade so they are aware which books have been taken.’
London has become a major centre for the illicit trade in manuscripts and historic books, with dozens of works being recovered by police.
Scientific works are particularly in demand, leading to speculation that an individual collector – dubbed the Astronomer by investigators – had been commissioning thefts of works by Copernicus and Claudius Ptolemy, a Greek astronomer.
Books worth millions of pounds have also been taken from underfunded libraries in Russia, Poland and the Ukraine. Many are believed to have found their way to the UK.
But sources close to the Feltham heist inquiry say it is normally individual books that are stolen.
One said: ‘It is unbelievably rare to have so many books seized in one go. I’ve seen nothing like it.’
The Met Police confirmed the theft and appealed for information.
3 Ignoring other valuables, they break open the sealed book storage crates CRIME THRILLER: Copernicus 4 2 They drop down ‘commando style’ avoiding motion sensor alarms Discarding cheaper books, the raiders concentrate on the priceless volumes 1 The raiders climb on to the roof, cutting through three skylights to gain access 5 The books are passed out in stolen holdalls and then lowered down to a waiting escape van