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."