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Other Infamous Thieves Who Pillaged Libraries, Part V

In July of 2004, Peter Bellwood, a landscape gardener from Colchester in Essex, England was arrested and later that year admitted in Swansea Crown Court that in 2000 he had stolen fifty maps from atlases in the Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru (National Library of Wales) in Aberystwyth, Ceredigion County, Wales. The prosecutor, Creighton Harvey, indicated the pages and maps had disappeared between March and August of 2000, the B.B.C. reported in October of 2004.

Bellwood admitted to six charges of theft in which he used a razor to cut fifty maps out of the atlases on six occasions and that he had made £70,000 from the sale of these maps he had stolen. He denied he was responsible for one of the thefts. The National Library of Wales held that 105 maps had been taken.

The atlases from which he admitted taking maps were produced by Gerardus Mercator (1512-1594), published in 1619 and 1636; John Speed (1552-1629), published in 1627; as well as Johannes Janssonius (1588-1664). A B.B.C. report in December of 2004 indicated “A book by an academic, David Bannister, which lists the top 60 collections in UK libraries, was regarded by criminals as a ‘thieves' handbook’.”

Bellwood’s defense attorney, Peter Caldwell, claimed he had absolutely no assets, the B.B.C. stated in October of 2004. Caldwell “said that Bellwood had been released from prison for similar offences in 1999 and tried to lead an honest life,” the B.B.C. reported in December.

Caldwell attributed Bellwood’s actions “to a chronic condition and that is gambling…He was in the grip of the addiction of gambling and he would spend well beyond his means. He was frequently betting on horses with pitiful success.”

According to Caldwell, “Bellwood had finally managed to overcome his addiction and establish a stable life with a partner when he saw himself on TV.” Bellwood, Caldwell said, chose to give himself up.

The B.B.C. reported in December that a prosecutor, Creighton Harvey, said, "He would use a hobby knife to cut the maps out…He would then fold them up and place them down the back of his trousers so he was able to leave the library with the maps secreted about his person."

In May of 2008, a rich Iranian scholar and businessman Farhad Hakimzadeh, pled guilty to fourteen charges of theft from the British Library and the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library and a judge sentenced him to imprisonment for two years and fined him £7,500. The books he mutilated mostly dealt with European engagement with Mesopotamia (then in the Ottoman Turkish Empire), the Persian Empire, and the Moghul Empire – a region occupied by the modern states of Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – from the 17th Century onwards.

According to his official biography, Hakimzadeh was born in Tehran in 1948 into “a prominent industrialist family.” When he was nine years old, he left Iran to and continued his education in German schools.

From 1967 to 1971, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received degrees in Electrical Engineering and Industrial Management. According to Sandra Laville, “The Iranian-born academic fled his country after the fall of the Shah and holds a US passport.”

According to, a Zoroastrian Web site on Iranian culture, “Hakimzadeh, an Iranian who has lived in Britain for more than 30 years, is an expert on cultural relations between Europe and Persia in the 15th and 16th centuries and is a former director of the Iran Heritage Foundation, which promotes Iran’s culture.”

In a Guardian article, David Pallister described Hakimzadeh as a “wealthy businessman and publisher.” Pallister also related that Hakimzadeh boasted his personal library was the fourth-best of its kind after the British Library, the Bodleian Library, and an academic library in the United States.

In November of 2008, Crime Correspondent Sandra Laville wrote in The Guardian, “Leading scholars at the library are at a loss to explain why Farhad Hakimzadeh, a Harvard-educated businessman, publisher and intellectual, took a scalpel to the leaves of 150 books that have been in the nation's collection for centuries. The monetary damage he caused over seven years is in the region of £400,000 but Dr Kristian Jensen, head of the British and early printed collections at the library, said no price could be placed upon the books and maps that he had defaced and stolen.”

In Ms. Laville’s account, things began to unravel for Hakimzadeh in June of 2006, when a reader noticed some pages had been removed from Sir Thomas Herbert's book A Relation of Some Yeares Travaille, Begunne Anno 1626. Experts examined the book and confirmed pages were missing from the book, which led to an investigation.

To begin with, the staff had to answer the question, who had accessed it? They checked electronic records to determine all of the British Library members who had read A Relation of Some Yeares Travaille.

In a process of elimination, they then cross-referenced every single book read by all of those people. “Pages had been sliced away close to the spine of the books and maps, one of them worth £32,000, had been removed from chapters, leaving barely noticeable indentations in the paper marking where they had been,” Ms. Laville wrote.

This painstaking work revealed that Hakimzadeh had read 842 books, of which at least 150 had been mutilated, between 1997 and 2005, as Ms. Laville reported in November of 2008 and the B.B.C. reported in November of 2009. At the time, Hakimzadeh led the Iran Heritage Foundation, which he had founded in 1995.

The B.B.C.’s Mario Cacciottolo reported, “This audit, carried out over months by two groups of experts, was made possible by the fact that a book in the library can only be looked at in its reading rooms after a person provides two forms of identification, which allows access.”

The British Library staff wrote Hakimzadeh, who claimed ignorance about the books being damaged. With no choice but to contact the police, the next step was for forensic scientists to examine the books.

Then the Metropolitan Police called upon Hakimzadeh at his home in Knightsbridge, an affluent district of central London, south of Hyde Park. In 2006, the British Library suspended Hakimzadeh’s library card, which he had gained in 1998, The Telegraph reported. When he was arrested, Hakimzadeh claimed he had purchased the documents the police found in his home at London’s Portobello Market.

Dr. Kristian Jensen, who was then Head of British and Early Printed Collections at the British Library, and is now Head of the Arts and Humanities Department, accompanied the police. Dr. Jensen said, "Some pages were found loose and others had been inserted into books in his own collection…Hakimzadeh is eminently characteristic of our traditional groups of readers: he has a profound knowledge of the field. From my point of view, that makes it worse because he actually knew the importance of what he was damaging. What he did was use the cover of serious scholarly purpose to steal historic pieces and abuse our trust."

Cacciottolo explicated, “A painstaking examination, involving the inspection of such elements as the gilt edging of pages, water stains, and even worm holes, revealed pages from British Library texts that were either fixed or loosely inserted into books owned by Hakimzadeh.”

According to Sandra Laville, “Some of the stolen pages were discovered but many have been lost forever.”

He has pleaded guilty to 14 specimen charges of stealing maps, pages and illustrations from 10 books at the British Library and four from the Bodleian Library in Oxford dating back to 1998.

The books he damaged included a copy of Historia de la China by Father Matteo Ricci, S.J. (1552-1610).[1] First published in Latin in 1615, this copy was printed in Spain seven years later;.

Hakimzadeh notably removed an engraving of a world map drawn by Hans Holbein the Younger (died in 1543), from a copy of Novus Orbis, an anthology of works by Simon Grynaeus (1493-1541), professor of Greek at Basle.

This document alone was worth £30,000. The police found it inside Hakimzadeh’s own inferior copy of the book, which lacked the gilt of the map, as Cacciottolo related.

Hakimzadeh admitted he damaged ten books at the British Library, which were worth a total of £71,000. He had begun removing maps from books at the Bodleian Library, as well, in 2003 as Cacciottolo explained.

The barrister William Boyce, Hakimzadeh’s defense lawyer, “said that as a wealthy man he had no need to steal the items for financial gain, and was instead motivated by obsessive compulsive disorder, according to The Telegraph.

Hakimzadeh pled guilty at Wood Lane Crown Court to fourteen charges of theft, and was sentenced to two years in prison, Cacciottolo reported. The Telegraph reported in January of 2009 that he was also fined £7,500 and several of his relatives wept in court as the sentence was read.

The Telegraph related that when he passed sentence, Judge Peter Ader said, "As an author, you cannot have been unaware of the damage you were causing. You have a deep love of books, perhaps so deep that it goes to excess. I have no doubt that you were stealing in order to enhance your library and your collection. Whether it was for money or for a rather vain wish to improve your collection is perhaps no consolation to the losers."

According to The Telegraph, “Judge Adder sentenced Hakimzadeh, who holds US citizenship, to two years' imprisonment for each of the 14 counts of theft, the sentences to be served concurrently.” This was merciful on Judge Adder’s part. If the sentences were to be served consecutively, Hakimzadeh would have spent twenty-eight years in prison (assumed he lived long enough to serve the duration of that sentence and he was not paroled).

Predictably, Hakimzadeh did not serve even two years in prison. Citing the Evening Standard, stated on Wednesday, April 29, 2009, “A Muslim scholar who was jailed for cutting out and stealing pages from rare and ancient literary texts had his sentence halved today…London’s Criminal Appeal Court ruled that he should serve 12 months.”

The British Library also sued him, Sandra Laville reported, as did Cacciottolo, who wrote, “And the library is also pursuing a civil case against Hakimzadeh, in an attempt to recover further items and to seek financial compensation.”

To the British press, Hakimzadeh was something of a mystery, because he never reveakled his motive. Cacciottolo wrote, “the actual reasons why this wealthy and cultured man defaced the very things he cherished may never be known.”

Cacciottolo related, “The British Library has since improved its security as a result of this case, with a "massive" increase in its CCTV cameras, and in the number of staff who walk around the library's reading room floor.”

[1] Fr. Ricci was an Italian Jesuit missionary who travelled to Macau in 1582 and became the second Westerner after Fr. Michele Ruggieri, S.J. (1543-1607) to study Literary Chinese. Together, the two Italian Jesuits – the first Western sinologists – traveled from the Portuguese colony of Macau, which the Chinese Empire rented to the Kingdom of Portugal as a trading post to Canton, Nanjing, and other major cities in Mainland China. In 1601, Fr. Ricci became a scientific advisor to the Wanli Emperor (lived 1563-1620, reigned 1572-1620). Four years later, he founded the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Peking (now Beijing).

[2] Hans Holbein the Younger, whose father you will be shocked, shocked to know was Hans Holbein the Elder, was court painter to King Henry VIII (lived 1491-1547, reigned 1509-1547) from 1535 until his death in 1543, which was a feat considering many of his patrons were legally murdered at the instigation of the king.

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