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Christopher Kernick, aged 38, of Cheriton, Folkestone, Kent, “destroyed the integrity” of the two historic 17th century books, Inner London Crown Court heard. The thefts surfaced when a Cambridge University librarian realised that a 1627 volume called An Abridgement of Camden’s Britannia with Maps of Seuvrall Shires of England and Wales, valued at £15,000, was missing. It then emerged that a £3000 book called A prospect of the most famous parts of the world, printed in 1646, had disappeared from the British Library.

Kernick, said to be “fascinated by maps”, had the charts removed from their bindings, coloured and framed and then sold them over the Internet for between £150 and £200 each. He told the court that he had sold eight maps for around £1600 and was about to sell another 14 when he was caught.

Alistair Keith, prosecuting, said Kernick had been able to gain temporary admission to the Cambridge University Library by using a bogus letter purporting to be from a publisher. There he had inspected 15 atlases, selecting a “conveniently” small one to steal.

A police search of his home in Folkestone found no trace of the stolen maps, but framed maps on the wall legitimately bought from a shop called Marrin & Son in the town led them to the Framing Centre in Sandgate Road, Folkestone. There the unwitting staff had framed 14 stolen maps awaiting collection by Kernick.

Sold on Internet

The defendant initially denied any knowledge of the missing items in his police interview, claiming he had returned the atlases. But when detectives said they had found the man who had coloured the maps, he “broke down” and confessed to selling eight maps on eBay, the Internet auction site.

“He went on to explain the outstanding maps were at his mother’s address in Dover,” said Mr Keith. “He had thrown the bindings and a quantity of text away.” Police recovered a number of frames and maps from Kernick’s mother’s home. All or most of the maps have been returned to Cambridge University, but there were a number outstanding from the British Library, the court heard.

Defending Kernick, Mr Philip Noble said he had suffered a catalogue of tragedies since 2000. His best friend had committed suicide, another died in a car crash, and he had lost his father. He was also left to bring up his 14-year-old daughter on his own after his marriage broke up and he was struggling to meet debts, the court was told.

“It is clear the integrity of these two volumes of collections of maps, these historic atlases, have been totally destroyed,” said Judge Nicholas Philpot. “I’ve no doubt at all the only sentence that can be justified is one of imprisonment.” He sentenced Kernick, who had admitted two counts of theft earlier in the year, to 15 months for the theft from the British Library and six months for the one from Cambridge University, both to run concurrently.