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Georgians arrested over cross-Europe thefts of rare library books



Police have arrested nine Georgians suspected of running a sophisticated criminal operation stealing valuable antique books – including an original Alexander Pushkin manuscript – from national libraries across Europe.

Shelves of 19th-century Russian-language literature had been ransacked over two years across several countries and replaced with fakes, Europol, the EU police agency, revealed on Thursday.

The University of Warsaw, which was among the targets, last year reported the theft of first editions of works by the influential authors Pushkin and Nikolai Gogol.

Europol said the suspects allegedly sometimes posed as academics to gain access to the books in order to make counterfeits of “outstanding quality”.

A portrait of Alexander Pushkin by Orest Kiprensky. A Pushkin manuscript was among the items stolen. Photograph: World History Archive/Alamy

While in the reading rooms “they would meticulously measure the books and take photographs before handing them back” – only to return days, weeks or months later to swap them with near perfect copies.

In other cases they “relied on a more crude approach” and simply staked out the collection in national libraries, decided what was of interest and later broke in and stole the books, police said.

At the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations in Paris last October, two gang members broke in and took away a dozen manuscripts, escaping in an accomplice’s car.

“In total, the criminal group is believed to be responsible for the theft of at least 170 books, causing financial damages amounting to around €2.5m [£2.1m] and an immeasurable patrimonial loss to society,” said Europol, which coordinated the operation involving more than 100 officers searching 27 properties in several countries.

Some of the stolen artefacts had been sold via auction houses in St Petersburg and Moscow, “effectively making them irrecoverable”, Europol added.

Four suspects were arrested in Georgia on Wednesday, and another three individuals were detained earlier in Estonia, France and Lithuania. Another two Georgian nationals have been under judicial supervision in France since being apprehended at Brussels airport in November 2023.

The international operation came about after French authorities notified Europol about losses in their libraries. It then emerged that other countries had also recorded losses of rare books and an operation was set up in France, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland and Switzerland to catch the thieves.

Europol said the gang was believed to be responsible for the theft of at least 170 books. As part of the operation the police seized more than 150 books, the provenance of which they are now assessing.

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The books were stolen in 2022 and 2023 from national and historical libraries in France, Germany, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Switzerland.

Last May Vilnius University’s library discovered that 17 of its rare Russian-language books had gone missing, while the University of Warsaw identified 79 books as missing, with an investigation showing books carrying their library stamps and catalogue numbers in a Russian auction house.

On 31 October last year, staff at Geneva Library noticed the theft of several books, including a collection of four works by Pushkin published in 1827, 1823, 1874 and 1821, each valued at more than €175,000 (£150,000). Two individuals who had asked to consult works by the Russian playwright and poet in the days leading up to the theft had left some of their belongings behind in the reading room.

A 1825 edition of Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov was discovered as missing from the library at Lyon’s École normale supérieure last July.

As part of the cross-border response, police also identified the theft of one rare book that had not yet been detected as lost by its library.

Though Georgia is not in the EU, Europol was able to work with Georgian authorities to locate several members of the organised criminal gang.

Hieronim Grala, a former diplomat, an expert in Russia policy and professor at the University of Warsaw, told AFP last year that the theft of the Pushkin and Gogol books was “like gouging out the crown jewels”.

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