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Thieves Rappelled Into a London Warehouse in Rare Book Heist

The burglars made out with more than 160 books worth an estimated $2.5 million

File this case to the "true crime" section. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

Do you remember that scene in the original Mission: Impossible when Tom Cruise hangs suspended above a computer? Well, it appears that criminals recently seem to have taken a page from Ethan Hunt's spy book. Three thieves robbed a west London warehouse in late January by drilling holes in the building’s skylight, and then using rope to descend vertically into the space to avoid motion-detection alarms, George Sandeman at The Guardian reports. In total, the robbers made out with more than 160 books worth an estimated $2.5 million.

The theft was a precision hit; the burglars came well-equipped and appeared to know exactly what they wanted. They specifically targeted the boxes containing valuable rare books, with one source saying they compared the titles in the containers to a list, reports James Cook at Business Insider. The books were being temporarily stored in the warehouse on their way to the California Book Fair.

The rarity of the books would make them incredibly hard to unload on the open market, Cook notes, and investigators theorize that a wealthy collector known as “The Astronomer” may have hired the thieves to steal the books for him.

However, the president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association, Brian Lake, disagrees. “I think it was an opportunistic crime, they knew how to get in and saw the books with the cutting lists and so realised the values,” he tells Heloise Wood at the Bookseller. “The idea that these were stolen to order belies the facts. That warehouse stocks books for book fairs round the world and doesn’t normally have them in the warehouse in the weekend."

Regardless of who instigated the heist, the theft of these books is a real blow. The stolen books belonged to three separate dealers; the most valuable book taken was a 1566 copy of De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium by Nicolaus Copernicus. Translated as “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres,” this seminal work records Copernicus’ notion of a heliocentric universe—that the sun, and not the Earth, was at the center of the universe. Sandeman writes that it was worth around $268,000.

Other books stolen include those by luminaries such as Dante, Isaac Newton and Leonardo da Vinci.

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