Bodleian books theft 'part of £3bn business'

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The Independent Online

The crime, quite properly, was an extremely quiet affair. Over several months, about 30 books were silently smuggled out of the ancient halls of Oxford University's Bodleian library.

The theological tomes, dating from the 17th century and worth an estimated £20,000, disappeared despite tight security in the reading rooms where scholars have access to the library's world-famous collection.

By now they have most probably been shipped to New York to be sold on the lucrative antiquities market to collectors not likely to be aware of their unorthodox removal from the Bodleian's shelves.

Though a blow to the library and its theological scholars, the theft is fairly low on the scale of crimes in the illicit trade in books, arts and antiquities. It is impossible to put an accurate value on that trade, the most profitable after drug smuggling and gun running, but estimates have ranged from anything between £2bn and £3bn.

In Britain, booksellers estimate thefts from libraries make up at least £1m of that total, with most being stolen to order.

A great deal of thought appears to have gone into the Bodleian theft. The library, which was founded in 1602 but built on a collection started by Humfrey Duke of Gloucester 70 years earlier, has a security system to match its status as the most important library in the country after the British Museum.

To gain access to the six million volumes held in nine buildings and supervised by 412 staff, readers must be vetted and have appropriate academic references. It is impossible to enter any of the 29 reading rooms without showing a pass, and, on leaving, everyone must empty their pockets and bags.

Quite how the thieves managed to walk out with 30 volumes four times the size of an average paperback is now under investigation by Oxford police and the university marshals' office. The theft came days after the university's Ashmolean Museum was raided by thieves who unsuccessfully tried to smash open a glass case containing watches, silver and gold.

The Bodleian is reluctant to give details of the missing books, feeling that its fame and history attracts unwelcome attention when thefts from Cambridge University and other libraries might go unremarked.

A spokesman insisted the library's security measures were as tight as possible. He said: "The library has up-to-date security measures and its reading rooms are open to those who have satisfied the requirements for admission."

Details of the missing volumes have been passed to dealers but those working in the field suspect they will already have left Britain. Laurens Hardman, head of security at the Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, said most stolen books were sold by the time libraries reported them missing. He said: "As a generalisation, stuff tends to head out of the country as fast as possible. New York is a clearing house."

He said the Bodleian's books might have gone abroad but would also be attractive to local collectors. "It's obviously not an opportunistic theft; some thought has gone into it," he said.

He estimates that rare books worth £1m have been stolen from libraries in the past 12 months and his association is seeking to set up a committee with libraries by the autumn to close loopholes that make the criminals' task easier.

Mr Hardman said experienced thieves operating "big business" were set against libraries where security and cataloguing was not always what it could be and where "somewhat unworldly" staff could be unaware of the value of their charges.

Det Sgt Vernon Copley, head of Scotland Yard's arts and antiquities unit, said security in some libraries could be improved but they were up against a trend that was making Britain the centre of a flourishing international crime syndicate.

Back at the Bodleian yesterday, tour guides were explaining to tourists how the library nevery let its books outside its walls, not even to Charles I when he requested to borrow a volume.

Somewhere, possibly in New York or perhaps closer to home in Oxford, a criminal with a knowledge of theology would beg to differ.