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.
The reason the First Folio is so cherished is that without it, "we wouldn't have about half of Shakespeare's plays," said Maynard Mack Jr., an English professor and a Shakespeare expert at the University of Maryland.
Eighteen of the Bard's plays appeared nowhere else but the First Folio. Imagine a world without "Antony and Cleopatra" or "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
"It's a huge book with dense, double-column pages," Mack said.
The loss of any single example of the First Folio is not the same as losing a masterpiece painting. Yet in subtle ways, each First Folio is unique, and scholars can trace the production of the volume by those differences.
"That is why recovering the Durham one is so important," Mack said.
And that is also how the alleged thief was caught.
When the mysterious man arrived at the Folger last month, he had a story to go with his book: He said the work was from a family library in Cuba, and he was representing the family.
"From time to time, people have asked us to help them to figure out what a book might be," the Folger's Scott said. "On the other hand, usually those people have called or e-mailed beforehand. It's a little unusual to just show up."
Librarian Richard Kuhta met the man and examined the book. "It's clear to Richard immediately that this is something important," Scott said.
Kuhta asked the man if the library could keep the volume for further study, and the man agreed to leave it for two days. "Alarm bells" were going off in the minds of the library's staff, Scott said. "It's the first time a genuine First Folio has walked into our doors unannounced."
When the man returned, Kuhta was able to tell him that the book was an authentic First Folio. But Kuhta and the Folger staff still wanted to determine which of the 230 extant First Folios it was. A few of the opening pages of the version presented to the Folger had been removed. They would have contained obvious markings tied to the Durham First Folio.
But each First Folio can be identified by other marks and printing idiosyncrasies.
The library staff wanted to consult an outside expert, Stephen Massey. The mysterious man agreed to let the library keep the book for Massey's inspection, which did not take place until June 26. By the next day, Massey and the Folger staff had reached a conclusion: In their hands was the missing Durham First Folio.
The Folger called the FBI and gave officials the man's name and contact information. The British Embassy in Washington alerted the Durham police.
The suspect was arrested Thursday on suspicion of theft, and he was still being questioned late yesterday, Durham time.
The man lives in a modest brick two-bedroom house in a working-class neighborhood of Washington, England -- the ancestral town of George Washington's family, about a 15-minute drive from the university where the folio was stolen.
According to police, there was a silver Ferrari in his driveway and Armani suits in the closets. The man lived there with his mother, who is in her 80s. The home was crammed with antique books. The mother -- who told police that her son "buys and sells books" -- had been moved out by police who were searching the home yesterday. Besides the First Folio, several other rare works were stolen in the same 1998 heist.
"This is very, very exciting," said Dionne Hamil, a spokeswoman for Durham University. "It's a national treasure."
Bill Bryson, Durham University's chancellor and a U.S.-born author of a work on Shakespeare, among other well-known books, said in a statement: "This is not only wonderful news for the university but for all Shakespeare's scholars and fans around the world."
As the Bard might say, "All's well that ends well."
Jordan reported from London. Staff researcher Robert E. Thomason contributed to this report.