Hundreds of internationally important and irreplaceable books worth more than £2.5m which were stolen in a daring heist by abseiling burglars have been returned to their rightful owners.
Metropolitan police on Tuesday announced the successful conclusion of a near four-year police operation investigating the Mission Impossible-style theft of books that included rare works by Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo and the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco de Goya.
Det Insp Andy Durham, who led the investigation, said seeing the pleasure of each victim being reunited with their books had been an emotional experience. One man, Alessandro Bado, “was so happy and said with great gusto: ‘Tonight we drink like Lions!’ This made my day, seeing his reaction and joy.”
The books were stolen from a warehouse in west London in January 2017 where they were being stored en route to a specialist auction in Las Vegas. Burglars cut holes in the roof before abseiling down to shelves where they perched to avoid sensors that would have set off alarms.
Over five hours, they winched their haul up in 16 large bags. The books were later smuggled to Romania by organised criminals.
The books were eventually tracked down to Neamt, in north-east Romania, where they were discovered stacked in neatly wrapped packages in a concrete pit.
Experts from the National Library of Romania helped with the investigation, storage and safe return of the books.
The Met said 83 of the books suffered some damage, mainly caused by water and mould due to how the books had been hidden underground. Some spines were also broken, which was attributed to poor transportation.
The emotional reunification of 240 books, to four of the five victims, took place in Bucharest last month.
Durham said: “It was lovely to see the joy of each victim being reunited with these irreplaceable books.”
One of the victims, Alessandro Riquier, expressed his gratitude to the various agencies involved in the case: “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.”
In total 12 men were jailed at Kingston crown court in early October for their role in crimes committed across the UK.
The men were identified as being part of a Romanian organised crime group responsible for a string of high-value warehouse burglaries in the UK. Police said the gang had typically avoided prosecution because members were flown into the UK to commit specific offences and flown out as soon as the crimes were completed.
The gang was linked to a number of prominent Romanian crime families who formed part of the Clamparu crime group, the Met said.
Four of the books remain missing and police are keen to hear from anyone with information.
They are an illuminated manuscript attributed to the circle of Attavante degli Attavanti, published in north Italy in 1480, valued at about £24,000; a photo album of pictures taken in China and published in 1920, worth about £1,500; a collection of pressed butterflies by Nawa, worth about £4,000; and La Saggia Pazzia by Antonio Maria Spelta, published between 1606 and 1607, and valued at about £1,500.