Sandra Laville, crime correspondent
Known as the “Tome Raider”, he also goes by the aliases Mr Santoro or David Fletcher. A notorious gentleman thief in the rarefied world of antiquarian books, he has slipped through the hands of the police, is wanted and at large.
Libraries across the world, archive collections, auctioneers and international book dealers were given a brief respite when William Simon Jacques, a Cambridge graduate with an IQ on the genius rating, was jailed for four years for stealing £1m worth of rare and ancient books from the British Library in one of the biggest hauls in legal history.
Still a master of the alias and disguise, Jacques is out of prison and up to his old tricks once more. Now aged 40, he was arrested for stealing a 12-volume set of colour print books worth more than £50,000 from the Royal Horticultural Society’s world-famous Lindley library but disappeared while on police bail. Many months on, the trail has gone cold. “He is extremely bright, too bright to get caught, it is going to be very difficult to find him,” said one investigator.
Jacques is one of a handful of highly intelligent, well-educated criminals who operate in the somewhat murky world of international antiquarian book traders, collectors and curators. They successfully plunder priceless tomes, manuscripts and ancient maps, while the players in this closed world – the national and international libraries, the dealers and the victims themselves – largely remain silent about what is going on.
Today at Aylesbury crown court, another member of this band of thieves faces a custodial sentence after admitting the theft of £232,880-worth of extremely rare books from one of the most powerful financiers in the world, Sir Evelyn de Rothschild. It is a case that has until now received no publicity. Like Jacques, 59-year-old David Slade is a well-educated and highly knowledgeable loner, but also the former president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association in the UK, and a dealer who has sold internationally since he was 17.
Slade was hired by Rothschild to catalogue the family book collection. As he did his work, visiting Rothschild’s home, Ascott house in Buckinghamshire, two or three times a week, Slade discreetly removed the odd book, each of which was an extremely valuable and beautifully crafted production by one of the private presses that operated in the late 19th and early 20th century.
He took them to an auction house where his reputation was unquestioned and sold them for significant sums. It was during a routine audit that Rothschild noticed the books, 68 in all, had gone missing. Slade’s guilty plea went unnoticed, but the ABA has now decided to speak out.
Alan Shelley, current president, said the only way to eradicate the trafficking of rare books was to work closely with libraries, auctioneers and dealers.
The British Library has led the way by admitting when it is the victim of theft. But while major international libraries alert each other to details of stolen books or descriptions of thieves, these do not always reach the antiquarian book trade and not all libraries are honest about falling victim to theft.
“We all need to be a bit more grown up,” said Jolyon Hudson, from Pickering and Chatto antiquarian bookseller. “[Libraries] are the curators of the nation’s knowledge, and when they lose it they are somewhat embarrassed to admit that.”
The British Library, already plundered by Jacques, and after him by the American thief Edward Forbes Smiley, fell victim to the secrecy surrounding the antiquarian world, when they allowed Farhad Hakimzadeh to become a reader. He proceeded to slice out sections of handbound books, causing £300,000 worth of damage – a crime for which he received two years in jail this month.
Unknown to the library, the Iranian academic had stolen almost £100,000 worth of books from the Royal Asiatic Society 12 years before. But in an out-of-court settlement, which included a gagging clause on both sides, Hakimzadeh paid the RAS £75,000 and details were not sent around the international library alert system.
“In terms of the scale of it, we don’t know whether this is the tip of the iceberg,” said Shelley.
Few doubt that in the 20 months he has remained missing and wanted, Jacques has targeted other major libraries, using one of his many aliases. “You’ve got to accept he is still at it,” said one investigator. “A leopard doesn’t change his spots.”