A 400-year-old first-folio edition of William Shakespeare's works that was stolen from Durham University Library a decade ago has been recovered following an international operation involving literary experts in Washington DC and British detectives.
The historic volume, which dates to 1623 and is estimated to be worth at least £15m, turned up in the US capital when a man walked up to the guards outside the city's Folger Shakespeare Library bearing a package.
That sparked a frenzied transatlantic police hunt that this week led detectives to a modest redbrick semi-detached house in a cul-de-sac in Washington, Tyne and Wear. The remarkable series of events has been met with astonishment and delight by those at Durham University who had feared the volume was lost for good.
Back in 1998, staff there lifted the protective covers to discover two empty glass cases among their collection of medieval manuscripts and books. To their horror, they realised that thieves had stolen several priceless works, including the first folio and a 14th-century manuscript containing a fragment of a poem by Chaucer.
Yesterday, academics at Durham University spoke of their excitement at the news that the work was being held in a safe room at the Folger Library.
The author Bill Bryson, Chancellor of Durham University, said: "Like Shakespeare himself, this book is a national treasure, giving a rare and beautiful snapshot of Britain's incredible literary heritage."
An international alert was sent out, a £5,000 reward offered and antiquarians worldwide were warned to look out for the books. But the search proved fruitless.
That was until two weeks ago, when a man claiming to be a businessman from Liechtenstein arrived at the Folger Shakespeare Library and carefully unwrapped a package to reveal the missing volume. He claimed to have acquired the book in Cuba, and asked the library if their experts could verify its authenticity. The specialists soon realised that it was a first folio of Shakespeare's works, printed in 1623, which once belonged to the 17th-century Bishop of Durham John Cosin.
"It was clear it was the Durham first folio, which immediately raised questions about ownership. The gentleman was kind enough to leave the book in our care. He was very agreeable when we said we wanted an independent appraiser to come in and help us," explained a Folger spokeswoman, Garland Scott.
After a week of careful examination, the library confirmed that this was one of the prized works which had vanished from Durham a decade earlier, and the FBI was called in. By then the mystery book lover had disappeared and the international hunt was launched.
That night, Durham police received a call from the British embassy in Washington to inform them of the American find. This Thursday, Durham officers raided a house in Tyne and Wear and arrested 51-year-old Raymond Scott – a book dealer who lived with his elderly mother – on suspicion of theft.
Neighbours described him as a "really quiet, nice man". Yet he could often be seen polishing his silver Ferrari in a dressing gown, wrap-around sunglasses and rubber gloves.
Yesterday, as detectives questioned Mr Scott at Durham City police station, officers continued to search his home.
"They have found a large number of old books and documents which have been collected and taken to a storage area at police headquarters. It will be inspected by experts."
The vice-chancellor of Durham University, Professor Chris Higgins, said yesterday: "Staff and the community felt a huge sense of loss when the books were stolen, so you can imagine my excitement and delight when I received the call to say the first folio had been found."
Security at the library, he added, had been significantly enhanced. "We are confident the first folio will be safe when it arrives back in Durham."Reuse content