It was one of the most valuable volumes in the history of the English language: a unique example of an original printing of the works of William Shakespeare, acquired for the collection of the Bishop of Durham John Cosin just 20 years after the playwright's death.
Relatively unmarked despite its great age, this particular copy of the Bard's First Folio enjoyed the added distinction of having been under the same ownership since before the Civil War. It had also been missing for the best part of a decade.
Yesterday, a trial at Newcastle Crown Court was told how the tome – valued at £1m – was allegedly employed as part of one of the literary world's most extraordinary scams.
It was claimed that serial fantasist Raymond Scott, 53, an unemployed book dealer who lived with his elderly mother in a two-up two-down former council house in Washington, Tyne and Wear, had stolen the book by breaking the lock on a secured glass cabinet in an exhibition of ancient English literature at Durham University's Palace Green Library in December 1998.
The court heard that Mr Scott, who posed as an international playboy and the multimillionaire son of a building contractor, sought to persuade some of the world's leading Shakespeare authorities that the book was an unknown example of the First Folio, telling them it had been the property of the recently deceased mother of a Cuban friend and was kept for half a century in a wooden Bible box.
Mr Scott, who denies theft, handling stolen goods and removing criminal property from Britain, said he discovered the volume while on a visit to Havana and needed to have its authenticity verified on behalf of commandant Deni Mareno Leon, an officer in Fidel Castro's army.
Dressed in a billowing T-shirt and wearing diamond rings, it was alleged that Mr Scott walked into the research department of the Folger Library in Washington DC and presented the book to astonished experts. But despite offering a donation and flattering staff at the library with presents, including a birthday cake, officials at the library – which houses a third of the world's 200 surviving copies of the First Folio – became suspicious and contacted the British embassy, Durham Police and the FBI.
The jury was told that the book had been deliberately vandalised to disguise its provenance. It was claimed that Mr Scott had cut off the bindings and covers and torn out the distinctive frontispiece, which bore the watermark of Peterhouse College Cambridge, and also removed the back pages.
Durham University staff recognised the volume from the handwritten reference to Troilus and Cressida on the catalogue page, and by its unique dimensions, having been rebound several times over the previous centuries and its 445 pages cut to fit.
Robert Smith QC, for the prosecution, told the court how the book had been "damaged, brutalised and mutilated" by Mr Scott. Experts said the pages were too clean to have been lying around unbound for this length of time, he said. "He presented himself as someone doing a service to the cultural community by bringing the book in to have it identified, but he did not make it clear what he intended to do with the book," Mr Smith added. "He told staff at the Folger Library he was staying at the Mayflower hotel in Washington DC. The truth was he lived at a house on Wigeon Close, Washington – not DC but Tyne and Wear, with his mother."
The court heard that Mr Scott had become infatuated with a young Cuban waitress and had been sending her money, leaving himself £90,000 in debt. It was claimed she would share in the proceeds of the sale.
Mr Smith said: "He had been transferring to her substantial amounts of money, which he could ill afford and had borrowed for that purpose. It was part of his facade as a man of means."
Mr Scott had claimed his mother, Hannah, lived at a five-star hotel in Monaco. Despite being on benefits, he kept a silver Ferrari 456 parked outside his mother's home on Tyneside as part of an attempt to present a false image of himself as a very wealthy man, the prosecution said.
The trial continues.Reuse content