Beer label expert jailed for theft from national archive

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The Independent Online
THE WORLD'S leading authority on beer bottle labels was jailed for 18 months yesterday after his 'obsession' led him to steal rare and unique examples from archives at the Public Records Office at Kew, south-west London.

Keith Osborne, 47, who since being convicted at Kingston Crown Court, south-west London, on 29 July has been dismissed from his job as a local government officer in Fleet, Hampshire, was sentenced by Judge Denis Paiba.

Peter Tester, for the defence, had urged community service, saying Osborne's offences were 'completely and utterly out of character' and that a prison sentence would be 'an entirely crushing blow' to him and his family.

But Judge Paiba said: 'You built up a mammoth collection of 30,000 beer bottle labels worth pounds 50,000 and in my view it became an obsession.

'You were in the privileged position of being able to see and handle the national archive, which is of immense importance to the nation. The courts will be rigorous in dealing with thefts of this sort.'

Osborne, of Hawley, Camberley, Surrey, had been found guilty of nine theft charges involving a total of 28 labels during 15 months up to August 1993. He was jailed for 18 months concurrently on each count and given 12 months to pay costs of pounds 2,992.

The court had heard that Osborne - president of the Labologist Society - topped up his personal collection by using a blade to cut out pages from antique volumes. He would hide a blade in his handkerchief, cut out the cardboard pages and soak off the labels in a lavatory cistern.

A watch was kept after a guard heard running water in the lavatory and found a page of labels in the cistern. Osborne's activities were captured on a security camera in the reading room at the records office, where 60 million records are stored. The labels he took, dated between 1884 and 1925, include unique examples of long-forgotten British breweries. None of the labels has turned up.

Osborne, who is in the Guinness Book of Records as having the largest collection in the world, denied he mutilated or stole any labels. Mr Tester said he had suffered severe depression and had received hospital treatment. The offences were committed when he was 'not himself'.

He had been publicly disgraced and being sent to prison 'would be a blow that was entirely crushing'.

Osborne, a collector for 30 years, is the author of The Beer Drinkers' Guide to Labology, the official handbook of the Labologist Society, which was founded in 1958 and has 500 members world-wide. Security at the Public Records Office has been reviewed since Osborne's offences came to light.

After the case, Osborne's wife, Beverley, said he would appeal. 'He is not guilty,' she said. 'The only evidence against him was circumstantial.'