Farhad Hakimzadeh, a wealthy academic and publisher, loved nothing more than caring for the books in his personal library and showing them off to fellow scholars. Even on his wedding night, his obsession was such that his bride was left waiting as he dusted off the covers of his precious tomes.
Staff at the world-famous British and Bodleian libraries never assumed anything was amiss when the dedicated bibliophile regularly turned up to pore over their ancient and rare manuscripts. But, out of sight of security cameras, the 60-year-old would slip a scalpel out of his pocket and carefully slice out particular pages. Returning home he would place the stolen texts, plates or maps into matching copies in his collection, which he told friends and family was the fourth-best in the world.
The incisions were invisibly made from volumes that only experts would know had been defaced. Hakimzadeh's crime went unchecked for years until a professor noticed several leaves missing from a 17th-century work by the traveller Sir Thomas Herbert. An investigation led to Hakimzadeh's £3m home in Knightsbridge, west London, and yesterday he was jailed for two years after admitting 14 theft charges.
The Iranian-born philanthropist and author caused £145,000 of damage to 150 rare books at the libraries, Wood Green Crown Court heard. But those tasked with guarding Britain's literary heritage said the cost of the "mutilation" of such books was incalculable.
Yesterday, as his family wept in the public gallery, the defendant simply nodded slowly as he was sentenced.
Hakimzadeh, who holds a US passport, was described as an "extraordinary" man by Judge Peter Ader, who acknowledged that he had done much to further academic relations between Iran and the West and had set up a charity to help disadvantaged women in the Islamic republic.
"As an author, you cannot have been unaware of the damage you were causing," he said. "You have a deep love of books, perhaps so deep that it goes to excess. I have no doubt you were stealing in order to enhance your library and your collection. Whether it was for money or for a rather vain wish to improve your collection is perhaps no consolation to the losers."
Hakimzadeh, who founded the Iranian Heritage Foundation, became a member of the British Library in 1998 and began stealing from the Bodleian in 2003. When investigators examined 842 books he had looked at, they found 143 had been defaced. Police discovered the altered editions, along with several loose pages, in his library. He claimed he innocently bought the stolen pages at the Portobello Road antiques market.
Hakimzadeh's barrister William Boyce, QC, said his client was a wealthy man who had no need to steal the items for financial gain, and had instead been motivated by obsessive compulsive disorder. The thefts were an "aberration", he added.
The British Library has launched a civil case against Hakimzadeh. Dr Kristian Jensen, the library's head of British collections, said after yesterday's hearing: "This is the targeted mutilation ... and an attack on the nation's collective memory of its past.
"Some of the objects which we believe are damaged have been cared for by the nation for centuries."