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Mission Impossible! Daring Thieves Nab £2 Million Worth of Rare Books in London

Original works by Copernicus, Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, and Dante were among the rare books stolen from a London warehouse in a scene out of an action film.

Miss Rosenby Miss Rosen
Photo: Unique edition of the Codex Atlanticus as it was in the 1600. The book is a box made by Pompeo Leoni to collect all the pages. Made by Mario Taddei in the 2007. courtesy Wikimedia Commons, illustration unrelated to the theft.

In a scene befitting no less than Mission Impossible, a gang stole more than £2 million worth of antiquarian books from a warehouse in west London in a daring heist earlier this month, according to a report from The Mail on Sunday.

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The three thieves broke into the warehouse by climbing up to the roof, boring holes through the reinforced glass-fiber skylights, then rappelling down 40 feet of rope while avoiding setting off motion-sensor alarms. Once inside, they took more than 160 rare books that were being held at a warehouse near Heathrow airport en route to the United States for the 50th California International Antiquarian Book Fair.

Leonardo da vinci, taccuino forster III, 1490 ca. courtesy Wikimedia Commons, illustration unrelated to the theft.

Leonardo da vinci, taccuino forster III, 1490 ca. courtesy Wikimedia Commons, illustration unrelated to the theft.

Experts suggest the thieves spent hours at the warehouse, amassing a collection of titles of tremendous historical value. The thieves could be seen on CCTV headed straight for the six sealed metal trunks containing the books, prying four open, checking the books against stock lists, and discarding any unwanted titles.

The most valuable book, a 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, is worth an estimated £215,000. Many of the stolen books date back to the 15th and 16th centuries, and include early works by Galileo, Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

Luca Signorelli, Dante (detail), fresco, San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, illustration unrelated to the theft.

Luca Signorelli, Dante (detail), fresco, San Brizio, Duomo, Orvieto, courtesy Wikimedia Commons, illustration unrelated to the theft.

Experts say that antiquarian books are impossible to fence, and have theorized a mastermind behind this particular heist. An unnamed source told The Mail on Sunday, “They would be impossible to sell to any reputable dealer or auction house. We’re not talking Picassos or Rembrandts or even gold bars—these books would be impossible to fence. It must be for some one specialist. There must be a collector behind it. The books belong to three different dealers working at the very top of the market and altogether they form a fantastic collection.”

The chosen books were loaded into containers attached to pulleys on the rope, lifted back up to the roof, then lowered down to a getaway van.

The Mail on Sunday notes that London has become a major center for the illegal trade of rare books, with scientific books being of particular demand. Investigators have dubbed an individual collector, the Astronomer, as the mastermind behind other thefts that include works by Copernicus and Claudius Ptolemy.

Hollywood would do well to take note.


Miss Rosen is a journalist covering art, photography, culture, and books. Her byline has appeared in L’Uomo Vogue, Whitewall, Dazed Digital, Jocks and Nerds, and L’Oeil de la Photographie. Follow her on Twitter @Miss_Rosen.