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The Demise of the Tome Raider: The Case of William Jacques
by Dr. Binoy Kampmark
2010-07-26 08:56:26
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People are imprisoned for an assortment of offences against the social order.  These rarely involve infractions against reading books, or their acquisition, unless one so happens to be living in a state suspicious of the written word.  But in Britain, one can, indeed go to prison for stealing precious books, or as they term them in libraries, ‘rare’ books.  Knowledge is precious, but can only be acquired through conventional channels.  To place a rare book into the market place is a cardinal sin.

The more one looks at the case of the chartered accountant William Jacques, the more one realises how unconventional it seems.  Between 2004 and 2007, Jacques managed to appropriate 13 books worth a value of $61,000.  He had used a false name to access the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley library in London and proceeded over stages to conceal his valuable quarry under his tweed jacket.  His foolishness lay in a certain laziness.  Over time, people started wondering why that same tweed jacket of his always seemed to be exceedingly bulky.

These book thefts are something he has paid a dear price for.  ‘Your entire motivation was commercial and you intended to make whatever money you could from the theft of these books despite their cultural value,’ the recorder Michael Holland QC snootily declared.  Might the situation have been less grave had he stolen without commercial intent? 

Indeed, the recorder claimed that such criminality was truly destructive.  ‘The effect of your criminality was to undermine and destroy parts of the cultural heritage that’s contained within these libraries and make it more difficult for those who have a legitimate interest in these books to gain access to them because libraries have to take inconvenient and expensive steps to stop thefts of this kind.’  Cultural heritage is not, it seems, a capitalist endeavour, and must be made available to all.  In the name of the common good, do not pinch books to the detriment of others, even if these others might only constitute a dozen readers in the world.

The recorder also took issue with Jacques’ violation of trust, having taken advantage of ‘the reluctance of library staff to challenge people’.  But even the gatekeepers can be tempted by such treasures of knowledge.  A most spectacular case involved the head of the Danish Royal Library’s oriental department, Frede Møller-Kristensen.  Between 1968 and 1978, 1,600 books worth more than $50 million were pilfered from Scandinavia’s largest public library.  Sales were duly made between 1998 and 2002, some totalling $2 million.  Had his family not gotten careless after the master thief’s death in February 2003, the crimes might never have surfaced.

Jacques’ record of tome raiding is exceptional.  He has cultivated a voracious appetite for the antique book market, acquiring what effectively proved to be a ‘thief’s shopping list’ (Guardian, Jul 20). In 2002, he received a sentence for four years having stolen 500 rare books totalling a value of over $1.5 million dollars.  His targets were the sacred sites of the rare book empire – Cambridge University Library, the private London Library and the former British Museum reading room.  His distressed ex-tutor at Jesus College, Cambridge, Ian DuQuesnay, compared his former student’s actions with ‘daubing paint on the Parthenon.’ (Guardian, May 3, 2002).  But surely, such comparisons are far-fetched.  The goods were never destroyed, let alone daubed with paint.  They were simply acquired by dealers and buyers and circulated in the market place.  It is precisely that, it seems, that enrages more than anything else.  The destruction lies in the mere act of unauthorised removal and subsequent sale.

As he spends time behind bars, the mania of the tome raider is bound to continue.  But is the tome thief simply a misunderstood robber baron of the book scene, keen to privatise the rare book stashes of world renown collections?  In that case, his crime is hardly graver than a commercial takeover.   Yet rules remain rules, and the librarian’s home is truly a castle, however leaky it proves with its rare books collections.


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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