The Tome Raider

William Simon Jacques was born in 1969, the son of farmer William Jacques and his wife Elaine. He grew up at Cliffe, near Selby in North Yorkshire. In October 1987 he went to Jesus College, Cambridge, to study economics. He was a fairly talented, though not exceptional, student, and graduated three years later with an upper second. He became a chartered accountant, and lived a quiet, solitary life in Maida Vale, north London. Apart from his reportedly high IQ, there was nothing to distinguish him from any other bookish accountant. But in 1994, the year he gained his MA, Jacques embarked on a five year career of crime which would see him become the most prolific book thief in British history.

He started at Cambridge University Library, a large building said to be one of the inspirations for the ministry buildings in George Orwell's 1984. With the aid of as yet unnamed accomplices, he was able to extract numerous rare volumes from the library's stores, beginning in July 1994. The following year he gained admission to the British Library, claiming he was doing research into economics, and the year after he joined the private London Library in St James' Square. For a total of five years he was able to procure the valuable books and sell them on through auction houses and bookshops.

But in February 1999, a book dealer who did not know Jacques bought a first edition of Pure Logic of Quality by William Stanley Jevons from Bloomsbury Book Auctions. The book was valued at £120. When the dealer tried to sell the book to specialists Pickering and Chatto, it was noticed that the book had been damaged to remove library markings, and then repaired. Pickering and Chatto contacted the London Library, who confirmed that the book had been stolen from them. Bloomsbury Book Auctions were contacted by the police, and told them that the book had been part of a batch put up for sale by Jacques. When interviewed, Jacques asserted that he had obtained the books from 'a scruffy man' at the Portobello Road market in west London. He could not produce any evidence of this transaction. The police investigated further, and found that books had been put up for auction by Jacques at Christie's in London, and at German houses Zisska and Kistner and Galleria Gerda Bassenge. The auction houses investigated the lots and found them to have been tampered with in the same was as the Bloomsbury volume.

Jacques was arrested, but failed to answer bail and fled to Cuba in May of the same year. Clearly he had realised that the game might be up, because he had made a transfer of £360 000 from his main bank account in Gibraltar to one in Havana after his first meeting with police. A note left with his solicitor informed police of safe deposit boxes in London, Cambridge and York. When raided, the boxes yielded sixty-four rare books, a forgery kit and a collection of blank sheets of old and yellowed paper, used for covering library markings or replacing removed pages. Six weeks after his departure, for no apparent reason, Jacques returned to Britain and was promptly arrested. During his interrogation by police he remained uncommunicative and arrogant, responding 'no comment' to most queries. He was first brought to trial in March 2001, but reporting restrictions were imposed, possibly to aid police in tracing Jacques' accomplices. At that trial, he was convicted by a 10:1 majority verdict of nineteen counts of theft, covering 180 books with a total value of around £860 000. At a second trial at Middlesex Guildhall Crown Court, concluding on April 29, 2002, he admitted two further counts, and Judge Derek Inman ordered a further twelve charges to remain on the file. On May 2, he was sentenced to four years imprisonment for his crimes.

The total cost of Jacques' activities is hard to gauge, but it is thought that he stole some 412 volumes, hundreds of which have never been found, with a total value of £1 100 000. His forgery in concealing or removing library marks has caused permanent damage to the fabric of the books, and compensation is being considered. Among the books known to have been stolen are copies of: Galileo Galilei's Sidereus Nuncius (1610, £180 000) and Dialogo (1632, £28 000); Sir Isaac Newton's The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy in two volumes (1729, £6 000), Opticks (1704, £14 000) and two Principia Mathematica (1687, £35 000 and £100 000); René Descartes' Discours de la Méthode pour Bien Conduire sa Raison (1637, £30 000); Johannes Kepler's Astronomia Nova (1609, £75 000) and Prodromus Dissertationum Cosmographicarum (1596, £15 000); Malthus' An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798, £40 000); and a second edition of Jeremy Bentham's Letter to Lord Pelham (1802, £2 000).

Karim Khalil, the prosecutor, said that Jacques 'has effectively plundered these historic collections in our principal libraries' and that '(h)e was looking to make a pile of money'.

Ian DuQuesnay, Jacques' tutor at Jesus College, gave evidence at the trial, and afterwards described the crimes as 'equivalent to daubing paint on the Parthenon'.

Jacques' parents were unavailable for comment. New security measures have been introduced at the libraries affected. The source of the epithet 'Tome Raider' is unclear, but looks like typical UK press dumbing down of a case otherwise lacking in populist content.

Sources: articles on page 5 of the Times for April 30, 2002 and page 6 of the Guardian for May 3, 2002.

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