‘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?

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - By Ian Gal­lagher and Jonathan Pe­tre

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

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