New Missing Books Register aims to deter antiquarian book thieves

This summer a new ‘Missing Books Register’ aims to help tackle the recent surge of high-profile book thefts. Launched by the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), the register encourages booksellers to check if books have been reported missing before selling them.

Antiquarian book thieves have become more and more brazen in the last decade. In 2017, a gang stole 160 rare books valued at £2.5 million by abseiling into a Heathrow warehouse. The publications, some dating to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, were owned by several collectors who feared they were “lost to the world forever”.

Thanks to the Metropolitan Police’s international investigation, the books were retrieved by Romanian detectives in a rural Moldavian hideaway three years later. Pom Harrington, President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association, explained that the Heathrow robbery “was made public very quickly… the list of stolen books was circulated and that made selling them on an impossible task. This turned out to be very helpful in the capture of the thieves and the recovery of the books.”

The new centralised website will make registering and reporting missing books easier. ILAB is also looking to work with The International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) and the UK libraries to register their missing books.

Anyone will have free access to most of the information ILAB holds,” said Harrington. “We cannot always release everything in case we prejudice an ongoing investigation…in these cases we have decided it’s better to have some details than none at all.”

In the wake of the pandemic, the antiquarian book trade thrived as the world adjusted to stay-at-home rules. “May [2020] was in fact a normal trading month and since then business has been excellent,” recalled Harrington. “Covid has provided collectors new-found time to spend with their collections, re-evaluate what they felt was missing and subsequently buy new items to fill in lacking areas.

Alongside the growing pool of buyers, a new group of millennial bibliophiles have begun collecting too. Online art fairs flourished in 2020 as well, including The Firsts Online platform which digitally stages rare book fairs.

Harrington revealed “this was a new idea we began working on a year ago and it continues to prove its worth. We have since had four online fairs, each one getting bigger… the trick will be how do we combine physical and online fairs, so they work together even after the pandemic.”

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