A European police operation has recovered €2 million of antiquarian books stolen from a warehouse close to London Heathrow in 2017. They were found buried underground at a house in Neamt in north-east Romania.

The heist in January of that year attracted widespread media attention after being likened to a ‘Mission: Impossible-style break-in’ in which the thieves scaled the roof of the warehouse in Feltham, UK, to bore holes through reinforced glass-fibre skylights and abseil down a 40-foot rope to access the extremely rare shipment of books, avoiding the facility’s motion-detection alarm system.

Reports at the time alleged that three offenders escaped with 160 publications, including a number of extremely valuable books from the 16th and 17th centuries, including priceless historical first editions of Galileo Galilei, Sir Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci and a 1569 edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

The location of the books had remained a mystery for more than three years and it was assumed they would never be found. However, on 16 September, a house search by Romanian police resulted in the discovery of the books, completing a highly successful outcome for the law enforcement agencies leading the investigation and their mission to recover the books before they went on sale on the back market.      

The discovery was the result of international law enforcement cooperation between the United Kingdom (Metropolitan Police Service), Italy (Italian Carabinieri - Arma dei Carabinieri) and Romania (Romanian National Police - Poliția Română) with the support of Europol and Eurojust. The individuals suspected of the theft are currently in pre-trial detention in the United Kingdom. 

Soon after the investigation into the original incident began in 2017, UK police believed the crime had been executed by an Organised Crime Group composed of Romanian nationals. A Joint Investigation Team was subsequently set up between the cooperating countries with the support of Europol and the judicial assistance of Eurojust. This joint investigation framework provided the involved law enforcement authorities with the analytical tools, the coordination of information exchange and the judicial expertise to carry out several criminal investigation activities. As a result, 15 suspects linked to the criminal organisation were arrested in the UK and Romania in June 2019.

In January 2020, police also arrested the ‘kingpin behind the cultural loot,’ Europol stated. The suspect, a Romanian national wanted by the British authorities, was arrested by the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage in Italy.