• British Library to sue after 150 books are vandalised
• Wealthy scholar pleads guilty and may face prison
Farhad Hakimzadeh removed a map by Hans Holbein the Younger from Simon Grynaeus’s 16th century work Novus Orbis. Photograph: David Levene
To the untrained eye the damage is barely visible. Yet within the handbound pages of books charting how Europeans travelled to Mesopotamia, Persia and the Mogul empire from the 16th century onwards, the damage caused by one Iranian academic to a priceless British Library collection is irreversible.
Jensen: ‘One selfish person was not caring about the rest of us’ Link to this audio
Leading scholars at the library are at a loss to explain why Farhad Hakimzadeh, a Harvard-educated businessman, publisher and intellectual, took a scalpel to the leaves of 150 books that have been in the nation’s collection for centuries. The monetary damage he caused over seven years is in the region of £400,000 but Dr Kristian Jensen, head of the British and early printed collections at the library, said no price could be placed upon the books and maps that he had defaced and stolen.
“These are historic objects which have been damaged forever,” said Jensen. “You cannot undo what he has done and it has compromised a piece of historical evidence which charts the early engagement of Europeans with what we now know as the Middle East and China.
“It makes me extremely angry. This is someone who is extremely rich who has damaged and destroyed something that belongs to everybody.”
Hakimzadeh, 60, faces a jail sentence today when he appears at Wood Green magistrates court in London. The Iranian-born academic fled his country after the fall of the Shah and holds a US passport. He has pleaded guilty to 14 specimen charges of stealing maps, pages and illustrations from 10 books at the British Library and four from the Bodleian Library in Oxford dating back to 1998.
When police searched his home in Knightsbridge, west London, last July they discovered some of the missing maps, pages and pictures inserted into less valuable editions of the same books he owned.
Academics at the library were forced to turn detective in June 2006 after a reader who had taken out a copy of Sir Thomas Herbert’s book A Relation of Some Yeares Travaille, Begunne Anno 1626 suggested some of its pages had been removed.
Careful examination by experts at the library proved him to be correct and the staff mounted a delicate operation to find out who had been damaging the book and whether other items had suffered the same fate.
Using electronic records, they found all the British Library members who had taken out the book and then examined other works these people had had contact with. They discovered that other works detailing the same periods in history and covering European engagement to the area from modern-day Syria to Bangladesh were also damaged.
Pages had been sliced away close to the spine of the books and maps, one of them worth £32,000, had been removed from chapters, leaving barely noticeable indentations in the paper marking where they had been.
“It was only the books taken out by Hakimzadeh which showed a consistent pattern of damage,” said Jensen.
They discovered that Hakimzadeh had taken out 842 books and of these at least 150 had been mutilated. Some of the stolen pages were discovered but many have been lost forever.
The library wrote to Hakimzadeh, who at the time was chief executive of the Iran Heritage Foundation, a charity he formed in 1995 to promote and perserve the history, languages and culture of Iran. He replied saying he had no idea that there was any damage to the books. It was at this point that the library went to the police with the details of the investigation.
Forensic scientists analysed the damaged books and police officers called at Hakimzadeh’s Knightsbridge home, where he lived with his wife.
“Some pages were found loose and others had been inserted into books in his own collection,” said Jensen, who acccompanied the officers. “Hakimzadeh is eminently characteristic of our traditional groups of readers: he has a profound knowledge of the field. From my point of view, that makes it worse because he actually knew the importance of what he was damaging. What he did was use the cover of serious scholarly purpose to steal historic pieces and abuse our trust.”
The library has launched a civil action to sue Hakimzadeh for full compensation.
The rare books that were defaced by Hakimzadeh include:
Historia de la China From the writings of Father Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit who travelled to China in 1582 and became the first western traveller to settle there. First published in Latin in 1615. This copy was printed in Spain in 1621. Ricci learned to speak and write Chinese and his work was the first important and reliable European description of the country.
Novus Orbis An anthology of works by Simon Grynaeus, professor of Greek at Basle. Hakimzadeh removed an engraving of a world map drawn by Hans Holbein the Younger, court painter to Henry VIII.
Mithridates By the English dramatist Nathaniel Lee. Published in 1693.
Ost-indian-und Persianische Reisen By Johann Gottlieb Worm, the German philosopher who accompanied an envoy of the Dutch East India Company sent to the Safavid court in Persia in 1717. He travelled to Isfahan from India via Bandar. Published in 1745.