Like something from a movie, the men cut a hole in the fence and scaled a wall to the roof where they cut through a skylight and made their way carefully down inside the building, avoiding motion sensors. The men took 5 hours and 15 minutes to fill 16 large holdalls they found within the warehouse while several other men were on lookout around the building.
They then escaped the same way they broke in- through the skylight and onto the roof.
Only 12 hours later, one of the three book dealers affected by the theft, Alessandro Meda Riquier, was phoned with the bad news: 52 of his most valuable books had been stolen. Works by Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci and the 18th-century artist Francisco de Goya were among the stolen books, the value of which was estimated to be more than £2.5m.
The house in Romania investigated for the book theft
Riquier’s collection was insured, but, he explained: “It’s not a question of money,” he says. The stolen items were not things you could “buy just around the corner”.
This particular theft was unlike others that had come before in its magnitude and efficiency; previous book thefts were usually smaller or specifically targeted a single rare item, while this one was a huge undertaking and contained many rare or expensive tomes.
David Ward, with the Hounslow police, was assigned to investigate the burglary and he knew immediately that this heist was a professional job. “They did it with a degree of finesse,” he says. “A less-sophisticated way would be just to jam a door open. But that obviously would trigger alarms. Going in via the ceiling, while quite dangerous, was the safest way for them not to be detected.”
The police investigating were optimistic they would be able to track the books down as it was unlikely the books would be sold publicly. So how did the criminals expect to sell the tomes?
“It’s a good question, because what was stolen was so rare that you couldn’t have gone to a book fair anywhere in the world and been able to sell them,” says Ellis, who also pointed out that black market art generally sold for just 10% of its open-market value.
It took the authorities almost 2 years to track down enough suspects and evidence to bring in 15 men for questioning. But there was no sign still of the stolen goods.
The books were discovered under floorboards in a Romanian house
Eventually thirteen men were charged with burglary-related offences in the UK, including the Feltham raid. and twelve pleaded guilty. They were due to be sentenced in late 2020 when a new piece of intelligence came to light, and prompted the Romanian national police to search a house in the northeast of the country.
In a cement pit underneath a floor, there were hidden more than 200 individually wrapped packages.
So far, twelve men have been sentenced to more than 48 years in prison for their part in the burglaries.
The crimes were solved in part by analysis of DNA evidence found at the scene of some of the break-ins and in part to the culturally significant, high-profile books taken in the heist.
The police believed that may have been the thieves downfall- the level of international investigation would never have happened if it was just laptops that had been stolen.
Only minor damage occurred to one in three books stolen
“Hopefully, it will make similar organised crime groups think twice about stealing items like that,” Ward said. “They know we won’t give up, we will turn over every stone, we will try every trick, and actually, they don’t want to be looking over their shoulders.”