As Archie Bland recounts for the Guardian, on the night of January 29, two men broke into a London postal transit warehouse by cutting holes in its roof and rappelling down through the ceiling to avoid security sensors. Over the next five hours, the thieves carefully extracted 16 bags filled with rare books set to be shipped to Las Vegas for a specialist book auction. Precious cargo in tow, the pair made their escape around 2:15 a.m., fleeing in a car driven by a third accomplice.
According to a Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) statement, the 200 books stolen included first editions of works by Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei, scientist Sir Isaac Newton and Spanish painter Francisco Goya. All told, reports the Associated Press, the stolen goods are worth more than £2.5 million, or $3.2 million USD.
Now, after three years of coordinated efforts by the MPS, the Romanian National Police, the Italian Carabinieri, Europol and Eurojust, authorities have finally recovered the purloined papers.
Per the statement, police discovered the trove of books—neatly wrapped and buried in a cement pit—beneath a house in Neamț, a county in eastern Romania, last Wednesday. The individuals responsible for the burglary appear to be connected to a network of Romanian families involved with the notorious Clamparu crime group.
After the three men made their escape in 2017, they doused the getaway car with bleach and abandoned it. But the detectives who tracked down the vehicle managed to find a key piece of evidence: namely, a DNA sample left on a headrest, notes the Guardian.
This DNA evidence helped police build a list of suspects. Last June, the investigation culminated in the arrest of 15 people linked to the criminal organization. These individuals are currently being held in pre-trial detention in the United Kingdom, according to a Europol statement.
The collection of stolen manuscripts belonged to three separate book dealers, reports Victoria Ward for the Telegraph. Titles included a 1505 edition of Aesop’s Fables; the tragedies of the Greek playwright Euripides, printed in 1503 in Venice by Aldus Manutius; and a 1566 copy of Nicolaus Copernicus’ On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. Worth an estimated £215,000 ($275,000 USD), the landmark 1543 volume lays out the astronomer’s argument for a heliocentric universe—a radical idea at the time.
“These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage,” says Detective Inspector Andy Durham in the MPS statement.