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Heritage crime team recovers 400-year-old book

A heritage crime team has recovered a 400-year-old book after an international investigation.

Police Scotland officers have helped save a stolen rare book from being sold or destroyed – and returned it to a Church collection.

Members of the Scottish Heritage Crime Group worked with Italian and Dutch counterparts for six months to recover a copy of sermons by Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.

The complex case began after it was advertised for sale on a Dutch website in September 2020 before being sold to a buyer in Italy.  

At that point, the book was seized by officers from the Carabinieri as it is against Canon law to "alienate property of the Church".

Italian officers then set about trying to establish who the actual owner might have been.

Enquiries revealed a priest had gifted the book to the Catholic Archdiocese in Glasgow in the early 1900s but it is unknown when it was removed from the collection.

According to an expert commissioned by Police Scotland, the book on its own is only worth around £140 - despite its age - but individual pages could have been sold to manuscript collectors destroying it forever.

A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “Its historical value is much greater than its monetary value.”

The result is a high-profile win for the Scottish Heritage Crime Group, a partnership group launched in 2019. Other partners include Historic Environment Scotland, Treasure Trove Unit, National Museums Scotland and Crown Office Procurator Fiscal Service.

The three officers on the team, led by Inspector Alan Dron, usually deal with thefts of cultural or historic material from scheduled monuments, castles or stately homes, copper or lead theft from church roofs and illegal metal detecting.

Antiquarian book thefts are rare despite the ease with which they can be taken mainly because the market for selling them is small.

The book is important because the Jesuit cardinal is a key figure among Europe’s authors after the Reformation. A translation of one of his other books is Jacob’s Ladder which remains in print today.

The cardinal, who was sainted in the 1930s, was also a judge in a heresy trial that resulted in a man being burnt at the stake.

There was a happier ending for the historic tome.

It was formally resituated to the Scots College in Rome in April before being brought back to Scotland.

Detective Sergeant Billy Telford, Scottish Heritage Crime Group, said: “This is a fantastic result for the Church and for all the officers involved in the investigation.

“It was an extremely interesting case to work on, tracing the book back to its roots here in Scotland. We don’t know how it came to be for sale online but it’s now back where it belongs with a fascinating story of its journey.”

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