Page last updated at 15:40 GMT, Friday, 16 January 2009

The thief who stole pages from history

By Mario Cacciottolo
BBC News

Farhad Hakimzadeh
Farhad Hakimzadeh is a wealthy businessman from Knightsbridge

Wealthy businessman Farhad Hakimzadeh has been jailed for two years for stealing pages from rare books in the British Library.

To staff at the British Library, Farhad Hakimzadeh seemed like just the kind of person who might pay this world-famous establishment a visit.

He is a published author, a collector of rare books, and described as "evidently extremely knowledgeable" according to one expert.

He is a former director of the Iran Heritage Foundation, which promotes Iran's cultural heritage, and is director of a company that publishes books on the Middle East.

Hakimzadeh is also an extremely wealthy man, married and living in a large property in London's Knightsbridge.

We extend a bond of trust to our readers, and Hakimzadeh has fundamentally broken that trust

Dr Kristian Jensen

He was described by the British Library as "eminently characteristic of our group of readers".

But despite his outward appearance, Hakimzadeh was a thief who mutilated the very precious texts he professed an admiration for.

The alarm was first raised by another reader in the library, who saw that one text had a page cut out of it.

This sparked a widespread internal audit by the library, which examined all 842 books that Hakimzadeh, among others, had looked at between 1997 and 2005.

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.

Dr Kristian Jensen
Dr Kristian Jensen examines a book that had a page cut out

The list of those who had viewed these particular texts was not extensive, given their rarity, and the Iranian-born British national was not the only person to have asked to see them.

However, as the Metropolitan Police put it, Hakimzadeh was the sole common denominator between all those 150 texts that were eventually found to be damaged by having some pages removed.

These texts were mainly 16th, 17th and 18th Century items, with a few from the 19th and 20th Century - books that only experts would recognise.

The subject area was the engagement by West European travellers with Mesopotamia, Persia and the Mogul empire - roughly the area from modern Syria to Bangladesh.

When police visited Hakimzadeh at his Knightsbridge home, they found matching copies of the same texts he had looked at in the British Library.

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.

This world map was taken from a British Library book by Hakimzadeh

It seems he often used a scalpel to cut pages out and had managed to evade CCTV cameras when doing so, employing "skill and deceit", the library said.

For example, police found a book at his home which contained an engraving of a world map by Hans Holbein the Younger, an artist employed by King Henry VIII.

The rare sixteenth century map - taken from the British Library - was visibly foreign to Hakimzadeh's copy of the book, because it had gilt edges unlike the rest of the pages.

That document alone is worth about 30,000.

Further thefts from the Bodleian, in the University of Oxford, dated back to 2003.

Dr Kristian Jensen, head of British and Early Printed Collections at the British Library, said he was "extremely angry" at what Hakimzadeh had done, describing the vandalism as "an attack on the nation's collective memory of its own past".

When asked if Hakimzadeh was a respected scholar, Dr Jensen replied: "Not by me."

He added: "We extend a bond of trust to our readers, and Hakimzadeh has fundamentally broken that trust.

"What he did was very difficult to detect and not always visible to the naked eye.

"What he has damaged is our historical record with how this country has engaged in that part of the world."

Improved security

Dr Jensen went on to say that these books play a part in demonstrating how the UK has engaged with that Middle Eastern region.

"He has a profound knowledge of the field. So in a sense from my point of view that makes it worse because he actually knew the importance of what he was damaging."

Peter Bellwood - stole dozens of antique maps from the National Library of Wales
Edward Forbes Smiley III - stole 97 maps around the world, including one from the British Library
William Jacques - stole more than 1m worth of books from Cambridge University Library, the London Library and the British Library

The plot has only thickened by Hakimzadeh's refusal to explain his actions.

Certainly the cost of the damage is substantial - the 10 British Library books alone that he has admitted to damaging are valued at 71,000.

The businessman first told police he had bought the books second hand, but then later refused to answer any questions as the bigger picture emerged.

Detective Chief Inspector Dave Cobb, of the Metropolitan Police, said: "It proved extremely difficult for the libraries to detect the absence of these pages as Hakimzadeh took care to select material that only an expert would be able to identify.

"He chose unique and rare editions and was therefore able to go undetected for some time.

"Some of the stolen pages were recovered at his home address but many more have been lost forever."

After pleading guilty in May at Wood Lane Crown Court to 14 charges of theft, he has now been sentenced to two years in prison.

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.

And the library is also pursuing a civil case against Hakimzadeh, in an attempt to recover further items and to seek financial compensation.

But the actual reasons why this wealthy and cultured man defaced the very things he cherished may never be known.

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