Missing Shakespeare Knocks on Folger's Door

The frontispiece of the Shakespeare First Folio that was stolen in 1998.
The frontispiece of the Shakespeare First Folio that was stolen in 1998. (University Of Durham Via Associated Press)
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By David Montgomery and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, July 12, 2008

The man dressed a little flashy for a rare-book guy. British accent. He picked Monday, June 16, to go to the library -- the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill. No warning, no appointment. Out of his bag, he pulled an old book. Flimsy, no binding, big pages. Said he wanted the Folger book detectives to check it out.

Could it be genuine 400-year-old Shakespeare? he wondered.

Funny he should ask.

So begins the final chapter of the antiquarian police procedural that ended yesterday across the ocean in Durham, England, with the arrest of a 51-year-old book dealer in the theft 10 years ago of a volume of Shakespeare's collected plays, published in 1623 and worth about $2.5 million, as appraised by the Folger.

The copy of the famous First Folio -- cited by scholars as perhaps the most important printed edition in the English language -- had been lifted from Durham University in northeast England.

The Folger's sleuthing determined that the old book was genuine all right -- and as hot as a pawned diamond tiara.

Shakespeare fans and rare-book lovers on both sides of the pond hailed the break in the case. Students of human behavior could only scratch their heads.

Why would someone bring a stolen Shakespeare to the place where the theft was most likely to be detected? Folger has the largest collection of printed Shakespeare, including 79 of the 230 First Folios known to exist.

Did he not know it was stolen? Was he trying to get the Folger people to authenticate it so he could sell it here, not knowing that everyone in Shakespeare world was on the lookout for the notorious "missing Durham First Folio"?

If the FBI or British police know the answers, they weren't saying. By late yesterday Durham time, police had not released the name of the suspect. It could not be verified immediately that he was the same man who visited the Folger with the missing Shakespeare.

"It's come back after all this time, and there is an interesting tale to it," said Charlie Westberg, a spokesman for the Durham Constabulary.

"That is what will make this a great movie one day," said Garland Scott, head of external relations for the Folger library.

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