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Celebrations as Met recovers £2.5m rare books in two year inquiry

DNA evidence has helped the Met return a haul of stolen rare books worth £2.5m to their owners after a 29-month international investigation.

Metropolitan Police officers have returned 240 antique books including works by the seventeenth century Italian astronomer Galileo after they were recovered from a house in Romania.

The handover followed the jailing of 12 Romanian men last month who were members of the Clamparu organised crime group.

Their recovery came after a multi-national investigation in conjunction with officers from the Romanian National Police acting under direct guidance of DIICOT and Italian Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, supported by Europol and Eurojust.

The investigation began after a highly sophisticated burglary in Feltham in January 2017 when the gang abseiled into a high-security unit and took the books which had been transported from Italy and Germany ready to be flown to the US to be auctioned at a rare books sale.

Details of the 240 works, which were written by authors including Sir Isaac Newton and the eighteenth century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, were immediately placed on the Interpol stolen works of art database and the international Art Loss Register. This meant dealers would be alerted when the gang tried to sell them.

Establishing an exact time of the break-in proved difficult as no alarms had been triggered.

But forensic testing created the breakthrough needed.

Initially the Met team thought the gang were sophisticated but later downgraded their assessment that they were in fact just well-organised crooks.

The gang had calculated roof entries based on the presumption that motion sensors for alarms would be placed near doors and not in the middle of the storage vault.

But one of their blunders led to their identification. Members of the team had left drinks cans on the roof that they had consumed during the raid.

DNA led to their identification from international criminal records and flight records revealed when they had entered the UK.

But the investigators waited to ensure they could find the location of the books.

During that time, the gang committed 11 other burglaries in the UK but targeted high-value electronic goods instead.

Officers now know their first raid took place in December 2016 at a warehouse in Peterborough that contained mobile phones and laptops. Other robberies were carried out in Hertfordshire, Reading, Sheffield and Enfield.

The Met established that different members of the gang would fly into the UK for each burglary and fly out soon after. The stolen goods were shipped out separately.

After the gang were arrested, ten were extradited from Romania and two were arrested in the UK.

Forensic analysis of their mobile phones and computers revealed meticulous internet searches had been made for each of their targets.

At the end of the trial in October, the gang were handed jail terms ranging from three years and eight months to five years and eight months.

A month before, a team of officers raided a house in rural Romania where the books were discovered after officers used angle grinders to cut into a cellar floor where they had been buried.

Detectives from the Met’s Specialist Crime South then travelled to Bucharest in Romania to formally carry out identification of the books. They met with four of the five victims, along with Romanian police officers within the Directorate for Investigating Organised Crime and Terrorism (DIICOT), at the National Library of Romania.

Unfortunately, 83 of the books recovered suffered some damage, ranging from slight to severe. The damage mainly consisted of damage from water and mould due to how the books had been hidden underground, and broken spines believed to be from poor methods of transportation. 

Twenty-eight were assessed as having substantial damage and two books were so severely damaged they have been initially assessed as being beyond repair.

Following the identification it has since been confirmed that four of the stolen books were not recovered.

Listing photographs of the books on the stolen art databases had effectively made them unsellable. The rare book market is small with dealers and auction houses based in the US, Western Europe and UK. Buyers are discreet and know each other. The one break-in the gang couldn’t pull off was accessing the market to offload them.

Delighted book owner Alessandro Riquier, from Italy, described the moment he was reunited with his rare treasures: “After three-and-a-half years, finally this terrible story has a very happy ending. I went to Bucharest full of hope but also a little bit scared about the damaged books.

“I was very excited and it was a great joy to handle my books again and to see that apart from one missing, and four books with variable damage, all the books were in good condition. Everybody was happy, the UK Metropolitan Police officers, the members of the Romanian Police and the Carabinieri, were all fantastic in achieving this great result. My special thanks go to them all.”

Met officers had to watch the moment online as they were unable to travel because of COVID-19 restrictions.

But Detective Inspector Andy Durham, who led the investigation, revealed a major celebration was likely: “It was lovely to see the joy of each victim being reunited with these irreplaceable books. In particular, the moment when one of the victims - Alessandro Bado – set eyes on the books at the library.

“Once he had seen the condition of a few of the most important books that he was emotionally attached to, he was so happy and said with great gusto: “Tonight we drink like Lions”. This made my day, seeing his reaction and joy.”

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