Saturday, May 8, 2021

Big Money: "Cracking the Case of London’s Elusive, Acrobatic Rare-Book Thieves"

 From Vanity Fair, April 2021 edition:

How detectives from Scotland Yard, Romania, Germany, and Italy nabbed the so-called Mission: Impossible gang, which pulled off a string of daring warehouse heists.

Impossible,” said David Ward. The London Metropolitan Police constable looked up. Some 50 feet above him, he saw that someone had carved a gaping hole through a skylight. Standing in the Frontier Forwarding warehouse in Feltham, West London, he could hear the howl of jets from neighboring Heathrow Airport as they roared overhead.

At Ward’s feet lay three open trunks, heavy-duty steel cases. They were empty. A few books lay strewn about. Those trunks had previously been full of books. Not just any books. The missing ones, 240 in all, included early versions of some of the most significant printed works of European history.

Gone was Albert Einstein’s own 1621 copy of astronomer Johannes Kepler’s The Cosmic Mystery, in which he lays out his theory of planetary motion. Also missing was an important 1777 edition of Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, his book describing gravity and the laws of physics. Among other rarities stolen: a 1497 update of the first book written about women, Concerning Famous Women; a 1569 version of Dante’s Divine Comedy; and a sheath with 80 celebrated prints by Goya. The most valuable book in the haul was a 1566 Latin edition of On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, by Copernicus, in which he posits his world-changing theory that Earth and the other planets revolve around the sun. That copy alone had a price tag of $293,000. All together, the missing books—stolen on the night of January 29, 2017, into early the next day—were valued at more than $3.4 million. Given their unique historical significance and the fact that many contained handwritten notes by past owners, most were irreplaceable.

Scotland Yard’s Ward was stunned. He couldn’t recall a burglary like this anywhere. The thieves, as if undertaking a special-ops raid, had climbed up the sheer face of the building. From there, they scaled its pitched metal roof on a cold, wet night, cut open a fiberglass skylight, and descended inside—without tripping alarms or getting picked up by cameras. “Dangerous work,” he says. “This is not something ordinary burglars try to accomplish.”

Then there was the loot. In a warehouse laden with valuables coming in and out of Heathrow for customs clearance, the thieves had taken their time in the darkness, more than five hours, to select from among hundreds of books—choosing the most precious ones. They made off with nothing else from the vast freight building except for some nearby tote bags—heavy satchels that they snatched from another shipping container. Ward tells me on a call from London, “You must have a lot of patience, strength, and ingenuity not to trigger the sensors and to get the books back through that hole in the roof.”

The items belonged to three respected rare book dealers, two in Italy and one in Germany. They had shipped their wares through Heathrow, bound for an antiquarian fair in California. Informed of the heist that day, Alessandro Bisello Bado, a dealer in Padua whose shipment had been pilfered, nearly fainted. He boarded the next flight to London. Walking inside the warehouse, he saw that nearly everything in the trunk was gone, more than $1.2 million worth. Michael Kühn, a Berlin-based dealer, couldn’t believe it at first. “I had never heard of so many books being stolen at once,” he says. Why these books? he wonders. “Insurance fraud? Somebody who wanted to harm one of us? A book lover who wanted to have one item and threw away the rest of the books to cover his intentions?” All he knew was that his losses might bankrupt him.

As Ward looked for answers, the thieves weren’t waiting. Over the next few days, they moved their bulky cache around the city. On February 5, a van pulled up at a London house. Soon the vehicle and the trove were on their way out of the country. Some of the burglars also left, by air. But new operatives flew in to replace them. That very night, the reconstituted team embarked on another brazen high-wire raid on a warehouse. Many more would follow—a dozen, in fact, mainly around London.

Scotland Yard raced to follow leads—and wondered where the burglars would strike next. The U.K. press, meanwhile, remained focused on the Frontier Forwarding break-in, dubbing it the “Mission: Impossible theft”—a tip of the hat to its similarities with the movie’s iconic scene in which Tom Cruise, as Ethan Hunt, suspended by a cable, breaks into a CIA vault.

Ward could see these weren’t random warehouse robberies. But why…books? Someone must have tipped them off. “They knew what they wanted,” he says. “There were plenty of other valuables nearby. They targeted the books deliberately.”

The Met Police assigned organized crime specialist Andy Durham to oversee the case while Ward and other detectives did what Durham calls the “grunt work.” But they had little to go on. They even checked to see if a circus had come to town, so acrobatic was the feat.

There are any number of reasons for someone to steal rare books. They are alluring and beautiful, with an aura that connects the present to the past. Connoisseurs will pay unfathomable sums for an iconic book. Last October, rare book collector and dealer Stephan Loewentheil spent just under $10 million for a first printing of Shakespeare’s plays, referred to as the First Folio. That was a bargain. In 2013, David Rubenstein, the billionaire cofounder of the private equity firm The Carlyle Group, paid the highest price ever for a printed volume, $14.2 million, for The Bay Psalm Book, one of 11 extant copies of America’s first known book....