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William Jacques, aged 33, dubbed the Tome Raider by police, stole 412 extremely rare antiquarian books, including a first edition of Sir Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica, from the British Library, the Cambridge University Library and the London Library between October 1996 and May 1999. He consigned some works to auction houses and stored others in bank safe deposit boxes. Some books have been traced and returned but hundreds are still missing.

The scam came to light in February 1999, but details of the case could not be published until now because Jacques faced further charges of theft. Last week he pleaded guilty on two counts, with 12 further counts not being proceeded with.

Jacques was traced after someone bought an obscure book called Pure Logic and Quality by William Jevons for £120 at Bloomsbury Book Auctions in London. The buyer then took the book to specialists in economics books Pickering & Chapman.

The managing director became suspicious as the book had been tampered with to remove identification marks. The holes in the book, which had been patched up with paper, provided tell-tale signs that the book had come from the London Library. The book had come from a consignment lodged at the saleroom by Jacques. When the auction house asked Jacques where he had acquired the book he told them at Portobello market in West London “from a scruffy middle-aged man who he couldn’t identify and hadn’t seen since”. But Jacques could supply no receipts. He then sent a legalistic fax comprising seven demands to the auction house ordering them not to identify him to the London Library or allow them to examine the books unless they applied in writing and could prove they were the rightful owners.

Prosecutor Karim Khalil told the Old Bailey that the defendant’s “litigious” approach contrasted markedly to the honest behaviour of the auction house and original customer.

“He used his education to construct a letter to try to make it as difficult as it could be for the library to identify their own property,” said Mr Khalil. Jacques then picked up a batch of stolen books in person from the auctioneers before the London Library had a chance to see them.

Further rare volumes were found to have been lodged with Christie’s in London and two auction houses in Germany, Zisska & Kistner in Munich and Galleria Gerda Bassenge in Berlin. Police found £360,000 stashed in a bank account in Cuba in Jacques’ name, the court heard.