Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Lambeth Palace retrieves stolen collection of extraordinary rare books

Early edition of Shakespeare and historic accounts of expeditions among 1,400 'priceless' books discovered in attic

The thief removed around 1,400 books from Lambeth Palace library in the early 1970s. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

From an early edition of Shakespeare's Henry IV Part 2 to illustrated accounts of the first expeditions to America, an extraordinary collection of rare books dating back to the early 17th century has been returned to Lambeth Palace almost 40 years after it was stolen.

The palace's librarian realised as long ago as 1975 that there were gaps on the library's shelves, putting the number at around 60 missing volumes; it was difficult to ascertain the exact figure, as the catalogue cards had been removed and the collection was still in a certain amount of disarray following a direct bomb hit during the second world war.

"It's nearly 40 years since it happened and we'd long ago given up hope that we would get them back," said Declan Kelly, director of libraries for the Church of England. "The theft was discovered in the early 1970s and the police were informed, the book trade were informed, but the police didn't catch the thief and the trail ran cold."

In February 2011, the palace's newly appointed librarian was stunned to hear from a solicitor dealing with the estate of the recently deceased thief, in which the culprit – who had "been associated with the library", said Kelly – made a full confession, and revealed the location of the books in a London attic. "I had a list of 60-90 books we definitely knew were gone," said Kelly. "But it gradually became clear that the loft was just completely full of books."

The thief had taken not 60 books, but around 1,400, many from the libraries of the Elizabethan and Jacobean archbishops John Whitgift, Richard Bancroft and George Abbot, dating back to the library's original foundation collection in 1610. The theft included engraved, illustrated volumes from Theodor de Bry's America, from the early 1600s; a book about Martin Frobisher's search for the Northwest Passage in the 16th century, A True Discourse of the Late Voyages of Discoverie for the Finding of a Passage to Cathaya; and a book about French surgery from the late 1500s, of which only six or seven survive in the world.

"Once we got over the shock, we were very happy to have them back," said Kelly. The thief had damaged quite a number of the books, trying to remove proof of ownership by cutting out pages or crests, or by using chemicals to eradicate the ink. The library has spent the last two years in a restoration project, with 10% of the titles now restored – staff were keen not to reveal the books' return until they "had some evidence of progress", said Kelly.

"We can't work out what the thief was thinking," he 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."

He declined to put a value on the collection, although one rare book dealer told the BBC that Bry's America could be worth £150,000, and the Shakespeare around £50,000, if undamaged. "We couldn't put a monetary value on them – the value to the library is for researchers [and the books' return] gives quite a different view of [the Elizabethan and Jacobean] archbishops, that they were staying abreast of current affairs," said Kelly. "We can't put a price on something like that."

And report from BBC

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