An antiques dealer who planned to sell a stolen copy of a rare first collection of Shakespeare's plays was jailed for eight years yesterday.
Raymond Scott, 53, took the 387-year-old book, which was stolen from Durham University in 1988, to the renowned Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC where he asked to have it verified and valued, claiming he had found it in Cuba.
The book had been damaged in an apparent attempt to make it look like a different copy than the one that had been taken from Durham. But staff at the library recognised the book and notified the FBI, the British Embassy and British police.
Last month a jury at Newcastle Crown Court found Scott guilty of handling stolen goods and removing stolen property from Britain. He was acquitted of stealing the book from Durham University.
Passing sentence, Judge Richard Lowden said Scott – who drove a Ferrari and posed as an international playboy, despite being £90,000 in debt – was a "fantasist" and had attempted to make money from the book in order to fund a lavish lifestyle to impress a woman he had met in Cuba.
The judge said the harm to the first folio, of which only 228 still exist, amounted to the "cultural vandalisation" of a "quintessentially English treasure". He said that Scott, an alcoholic who has 25 previous convictions, had either deliberately damaged the book or was party to the damage.
The judge also spoke about Scott's attempt to fool the experts in Washington. He added: "This was an attempt by you to take on the world's experts at their own expertise. You were confident that that balance had been achieved. You were, however, over-confident."
During the trial the court heard that Scott was unemployed and living with his mother in Washington, Tyne and Wear, at the time of his arrest. But previously he had met Heidy Garcia Rios, a 21-year-old dancer, while in Cuba. He showered her with gifts and at one point even had his elderly mother, Hannah, send the girl's family £10,000 to repair a roof.
It was while he was at a party with Ms Rios and another friend, Odieny "Denny" Perez Leon, that he came up with the plan to split the proceeds of the sale of the first folio, which contained 36 Shakespeare plays. Copies of the book in mint condition are worth about £3m. But when he took it to the Folger library, minus its front and back board and some pages, the head librarian became instantly suspicious.
The first folio is one of the most-catalogued books in the history of publishing and each individual copy has every blemish, typographical error and stain recorded. When independent expert Stephen Massey examined the book he confirmed that, mainly due to its measurements, he was sure that it was the stolen Durham copy. Mr Massey said the book, even in its damaged state, was worth about £1m.
Scott did not give evidence at the trial, but the jury was told of his denials in an interview with the police. He told officers: "Do you seriously think I'm going to walk into the foremost Shakespeare library in the world and, using my own name and address, with my fingerprints all over it, hand them a copy knowing and believing that it's got a doubtful provenance?"
Chris Enzor, Durham chief crown prosecutor, welcomed the sentence, saying: "Raymond Scott is a dishonest conman and serial thief who found himself in possession of a national treasure. Even after being caught with the folio he continued to deny knowing it was the copy stolen from Durham University 12 years ago.
"The priceless folio was mutilated in a bid to remove anything that might identify it as the Durham copy, pages and the binding was removed. The sentence reflects the seriousness of his crime, handling a book recognised across the world as one of the most important literary works ever published and removing it from the UK with a view to selling it."