October 6, 2020

Rare Books in an Even Rarer Recovery

On 29 January 2017 an organized crime group from Romania targeted and robbed over 200 rare books from a warehouse in Feltham, West London.  The collection consisted of 15th and 16th-century books and included works by well-known historical figures Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, Isaac Newton, Dante Alighieri, and Nicolas Copernicus.  The most valuable of these was the 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus but another lessor well known, and equally rare, texts, including a Muraqqa - album with Persian and Mughal miniatures were also taken in the heist

The books were owned by three collectors, two Italian and one based in Germany, and had been flown into the UK and stored in a climate-controlled warehouse while awaiting export to the United States for a scheduled book fair.  As the books were only intended to be at the warehouse for a short time period it is likely that the group involved in the theft had inside knowledge of the schedule of the books’ travel.  

When the theft was initially made public, many newspapers were more focused on the burglars' “mission-impossible" or "Ocean's Eleven-style" theatrics rather than on the cultural value of the rare books which were stolen, completely missing the value of Sir Isaac Newton’s 17th-century work “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” or fantastic etchings of the Spanish painter Francisco Goya.

To achieve their goal, the thieve's drilled through the building's skylight and rappelled down into the warehouse in order to avoid security measures.  Once inside they set about placing the rare books in large bags that could be hoisted back onto the roof, allowing the suspects to leave the way they came.  While it was expected that the books were either pre-sold to a collector or bound for the black market, nothing was seen of the books for nearly 3 years.   

The investigation of the theft was a multi-national collaboration involving the European Union Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation and multiple law enforcement groups.   In a coordinated joint action day, in 2019 the Romanian, UK, and Italian authorities arrested 15 suspects, following 45 searches, in Romania and the UK, arresting a group of individuals believed to be responsible for a string of 12 highly-organised burglaries carried out across between December 2016 and April 2019.

Some of those taken into custody were linked to a number of prominent Romanian crime families who form part of the Clămparu crime group. This group has been known to be responsible for major heists, prostitution, and human trafficking offenses.   

According to released court records, forensic evidence and CCTV footage were both key to the investigation of the thefts and to the arrests of the co-conspirators.  Two days prior to the book theft CCTV footage captured images of three individuals involved in the heist:  Daniel David, Victor Opariuc, and Narcis Popescu, all three of whom are seen on footage arriving in the UK and driving to the warehouse in a blue Renault Megane. CCTV footage then shows David and Opariuc exit the van, leaving Popescu as a lookout while they cut through the warehouse's perimeter fencing.  

On the night of the theft itself, footage confirms that both Daniel David and Victor Opariuc returned, drilling through the skylight and entering the storage repository from above.  Once inside they are able to work undetected for five hours.  At 2:15 AM the pair exited back through the roof of the warehouse carrying large carryall bags, then loading up their cache into the Megane before driving away.  

To cover their tracks, the thieves quickly abandoned their get-away vehicle after wiping down the interior with cleaning products.  The stolen books were then transported to a house in Balham, rented temporarily to Narcis Popescu, where they remained for two days before being secreted out of the country.

Through examining cell phone records, the investigative teams were able to determine that the books were transported by a fourth accomplice, Marian Mamaliga to Romania, who left the UK through the Eurotunnel starting at Folkestone, Kent, and exited on the European mainland at Coquelles in Northern France. 

But even with that foresight to wipe down the car, forensic investigators were able to find a single hair on the drivers’ headrest which had escaped the burglar's clean-up.  This hair was later confirmed to be a match with Narcis Popescu.  DNA evidence inside the warehouse found on an escape ladder would also confirm the presence of Daniel David at the scene of the crime.   At other crime scenes, the members of the ring left drinks behind with traces of their DNA.

Perhaps the biggest break in the case though came from the evidence of a different theft conducted by the same group.  Some six months after the theft of the books, in July 2017, the group had moved on to target an electronics company, stealing some £150,000 worth of Lenovo laptops from another storage facility.   Similar to the book theft incident, the culprits of this later theft entered through the roof, this time using ladders both to scale and enter the building. This time transporting the hot merchandise proved their undoing.  Stopped by Romanian police Marian Mamalig could not provide proper proof of ownership for the laptops, and was arrested.   

Following resulting leads in 45 different locations in 3 separate countries, the books were recovered on Wednesday 16 September 16 2020 bringing the three-year joint investigation to an end.  Still wrapped in their original transport packaging, the rare books had been buried in a cement crawlspace under the floor tiles of a house in rural Romania in the historic region of Moldavia.  Once in law enforcement custody, the books were examined by conservators to assess for any moisture or mold damage and to carefully dehumidify the pages to prevent further damage. 

When speaking to the success of the investigation, Detective Inspector Andy Durham, from the Metropolitan Police's Specialist Crime South said: “These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage.”  Twelve of those involved in the thefts have pled guilty and received sentences  They are:  

  • Marian Albu received 4 years imprisonment  
  • Daniel David received 3 years 7 months imprisonment  
  • Liviu Leahu received 3 years 8 month' imprisonment  
  • Marian Mamaliga received 4 years and 1 month imprisonment.  
  • Traian Mihulca received 4 years imprisonment  
  • Victor Petrut Opariuc received 3 years 7 months imprisonment  
  • Vasille Ionel Paragina received 3 years 8 months imprisonment  
  • Paul Popeanu received 3 years 3 months imprisonment  
  • Gavril Popinciuc received 5 years 8 months imprisonment  
  • Narcis Popsecu received 4 years 2 months imprisonment  
  • Ilie Ungureanu received 3 years 8 month' imprisonment  
  • Christian Unrgureanu received 5 years and 1 month imprisonment   

A thirteenth is set to go to trial in March 2021. 

By: Lynette Turnblom and Lynda Albertson

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Albertson, Lynda. ‘Theft: Antiquarian Booksellers Association’s reports dramatic book thief heist of 160 texts, some from the 15th and 16th centuries’. ARCA Art Crime Blog (blog), 13 February 2017. https://art-crime.blogspot.com/2017/02/theft-antiquarian-booksellers.html.
Bland, Archie. ‘Rare Books Stolen in London Heist Found under Floor in Romania’. The Guardian, 18 September 2020, sec. UK news. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/sep/18/rare-books-stolen-london-heist-found-floor-romania.
Brunt, Martin. ‘Romanian Crime Gang Members Jailed After String of High-Value Burglaries’. Sky News, 5 October 2020. https://news.sky.com/story/romanian-crime-gang-members-jailed-after-string-of-high-value-burglaries-12090902.
Chesters, Laura. ‘Stolen Collection of Antiquarian Books Worth £2.5m Recovered from Underground Store in Romania’. Antiques Trade Gazette, 19 September 2020. https://www.antiquestradegazette.com/news/2020/stolen-collection-of-antiquarian-books-worth-25m-recovered-from-underground-store-in-romania/.
Eurojust. ‘15 Arrests in Theft of Galileo and Newton Original Books’. Eurojust, 19 June 2019. https://www.eurojust.europa.eu/15-arrests-theft-galileo-and-newton-original-books.
Hamilton, Fiona. ‘Ladder Blunder Led Detectives to Gang Behind Heist of Rare Books’. The Times, 2 October 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/ladder-blunder-led-detectives-to-gang-behind-heist-of-rare-books-xdpmsstqv.
ILAB. ‘Warehouse Theft London 2017 - Stolen Books’. International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, 12 January 2018. https://web.archive.org/web/20180112012437/http://www.stolen-book.org:80/eng/presentation/Warehouse_Theft_London_2017.html.
Krishna, Swampa. ‘Thieves Rappelled Into a London Warehouse in Rare Book Heist | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine’. The Smithsonian, 14 February 2017. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/thieves-rappelled-london-warehouse-in-heist-180962176/.
‘Romanian Nationals “Stored 170 Stolen Books Worth More than £1.3 Million in a Tooting Warehouse”’. Wandsworth Times, 24 February 2020. https://www.wandsworthguardian.co.uk/news/18256463.romanian-nationals-stored-170-stolen-books-worth-1-3-million-tooting-warehouse/.
The Crown Prosecution Service. ‘Romanian Gang Jailed for Burglary Spree Including 200-plus Stolen Ancient Books’. The Crown Prosecution Service, 2 October 2020. https://www.cps.gov.uk/london-south/news/romanian-gang-jailed-burglary-spree-including-200-plus-stolen-ancient-books.
The Metropolitan Police. ‘Officers Recover “Irreplaceable” Books Stolen in Feltham Burglary’. The Metropolitan Police, 18 September 2020. http://news.met.police.uk/news/officers-recover-irreplaceable-books-stolen-in-feltham-burglary-410891.
———. ‘Organised Crime Group Jailed for Book Thefts’. The Metropolitan Police, 2 October 2020. http://news.met.police.uk/news/organised-crime-group-jailed-for-book-thefts-411930.

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