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Lambeth staggered by loftful of stolen books

03 May 2013


Recovered: a page fromSpeculum Orbis Terrarum by Daniel Cellarius (Antwerp, 1578)

Recovered: a page fromSpeculum Orbis Terrarum by Daniel Cellarius (Antwerp, 1578)

STAFF at Lambeth Palace Library are working through a collection of rare antiquarian books stolen from the library four decades ago, recovered from the loft of a former employee.

Staff did not know that many of the priceless volumes had been taken, until they started unpacking the stolen goods. The collection of about 1400 works, includes an early edition of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part II, illustrated accounts of the first expeditions to America, and a 16th-century French treatise on surgery, of which only six or seven other copies exist.

The thefts were first detected in 1975, when volumes known to be in the collection could not be found. But because catalogue cards had also been removed, and the library was in disarray after it had been struck by a Second World War bomb, staff estimated that only 60 had gone. The police were informed, and the book trade was alerted, but the trail had gone cold.

The scale of the crime was revealed only in February 2011, when a solicitor dealing with the dead employee's estate produced a written confession, disclosing the cache at his London home.

"We were staggered," the Church of England's director of libraries and archives, Declan Kelly, says. "A couple of my colleagues climbed into the attic. It was piled high to the rafters with boxes full of books. More and more boxes kept coming down."

Many came from the collections of three 17th-century Archbishops of Canterbury: John Whitgift, Richard Bancroft, and George Abbot.

Several had been damaged when the thief removed identification marks by cutting out pages or crests, or by using chemicals to eradicate the ink. As restoration work began, details were kept secret until a good proportion of the books could be made available again. About 150 have now been repaired, and several hundred more have been listed in the library's online catalogue.

"We can't work out what the thief was thinking," Mr Kelly said. "If you go to the trouble of trying to remove marks of ownership, it does suggest you are trying to sell them. But, on the other hand, the fact they had all been put in the loft suggests differently. You do read about fanatics who just want to have art and own it for themselves, but it's very strange."

Dealers have estimated the value of the collection at hundreds of thousands of pounds, but Mr Kelly declines to name a figure. "The value to the library is for researchers. [The returned books] give quite a different view of the archbishops - that they were staying abreast of current affairs."

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