Sitting at a British Library desk in July 2006, a reader carefully consulted the fraying pages of A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile by Thomas Herbert. Bound by a spine of deep green leather, lavishly illustrated and with the faint musk of old paper, the seventeenth-century text sat wedged between two grey cushions. Delicately flipping a page,the reader halted. The text had jumped incoherently from one word to the next. They leant forward to peer at the page numbers. One of the precious leaves had – neatly, almost imperceptibly – been sliced away.
A browse through the rest of the book revealed yet more absences: illustrations, title pages, text. Nearly an entire section on ‘the language of the Persians’ had disappeared. This was no coincidence, no historic damage. Somebody had been meticulously stealing from this book, one page at a time.
In January of that year, British Library staff had been alerted to a similar disturbance: a missing map of the New World from another rare text. Such an operation, involving a sharp blade and vigilant avoidance of CCTV cameras and staff, could only have been carried out by an expert with comprehensive knowledge of the text and of the library itself. Five readers had recently consulted the work and each, in a letter, was asked for information – all to no avail. That is, until a few months later, when it was noted that one of these five had also recently read the damaged Herbert. An investigation into this individual and their peculiar love of books was just beginning: it would take months to follow his paper trail; it would take a forensic team of librarians to analyse the thousands of books he had accumulated; it would become a tale of secrecy, duplicity and obsession. The common denominator: Farhad Hakimzadeh.
Born in Iran in 1948, Hakimzadeh was a man of scholarly and philanthropic reputation. He was educated in Germany as a child, then studied at MIT and Harvard Business School. After returning to Iran, Hakimzadeh worked on a communications project for the government and joined his family’s manufacturing business. But he was forced to flee the country following the upheavals of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, becoming a citizen of the United States of America, where he worked in real estate and venture capital. In 1995, Hakimzadeh moved to London.
Although he has shrunk from the public spotlight in recent years (and did not respond to interview requests) his character can nonetheless be pieced together through the many blog posts, pictures and personal profiles uploaded online – a well-known technique for burying undesired search results on Google. A LinkedIn page created under his name describes his current position as ‘Iranian Culture and Heritage Ambassador’ with an ‘interest in promoting and preserving Persian history’. Shortly after his arrival in Britain, Hakimzadeh co-founded the Iran Heritage Foundation, a non-partisan charity dedicated to fostering understandings of the Iranian and Persian world.
Hakimzadeh provided fellowships, directed a publishing firm, composed his own academic works. Scholars thank the multimillionaire businessman profusely in their forewords, for access to his personal collection, for his ‘indefatigable’ and ‘generous’ help. ‘I owe a special debt of gratitude to Farhad Hakimzadeh who meticulously searched the mediaeval collections of the British Library and other European Libraries for a suitable cover illustration,’ wrote Dr Farhad Daftary, Institute of Ismaili Studies. And yet, from this very same collection, Hakimzadeh had been methodically stealing thousands of pounds’ worth of rare pages.
After the alarm was raised, the British Library embarked on an audit of the books Hakimzadeh had requested since the building’s opening at St Pancras in 1997. Out of the 842 volumes, 112 had been mutilated. At this point, other possible explanations for the thefts were still being explored: whether a member of staff had stolen the pages themselves or aided the culprit, whether another reader could have carried out the mutilations. There was no evidence to support either hypothesis. No other reader had consulted every single one of these books. In many cases, no other reader had read them at all.
But it was not until 7 February 2007 that actual evidence of criminal activity was found, with a raid of Hakimzadeh’s flat in leafy Knightsbridge. There sat a folder of loose pages, a number carrying stamps of the British Library and Bodleian Library, University of Oxford. Throughout the house, Metropolitan Police and British Library staff identified further bound books, assimilated within Hakimzadeh’s extensive library, which they suspected held yet more stolen leaves.
Sarah Wheale, current Head of Rare Books at the Bodleian and assistant librarian at the time, remembered visiting the apartment for another raid in August. She estimated the flat contained several thousand volumes. ‘There were main rooms where there were shelves, as well as some cupboards, with both modern and early books,’ she described. ‘Then in some cupboards there were piles of loose leaves, many of which were unstamped and we couldn’t identify them.’ These detached pages, along with books potentially containing stolen material and some volumes which had not been examined during the raid, were taken to Holborn police station. Here began the real investigation.
Considering the specialised nature of the case, so profoundly different from routine thefts, British Library staff not only educated police but also led the entire evidence-gathering process. But their hands were tied. Librarians did not have internet access and were kept under close scrutiny: each item was stored in a separate container, sealed and numbered, which could only be opened or returned by police officers, recording every single time they did so. Moreover, they could not directly compare the evidence with the British Library’s own book copies; the entire process was based on photographs taken by staff. There were several hundred loose leaves from texts spanning half a millennium, published in at least seven different languages, covering diverse topics, from restoration drama to telecommunications. Needless to say, it was a long, arduous and unsatisfactory process.
Three British Library staff led the forensics: one who understood library operations and could decipher data from the automated requesting system; a senior conservator, who specialised in interpreting visual evidence; and Kristian Jensen, Head of Collections, who also had experience interpreting physical material and, most importantly, knew the texts themselves. Jensen noted that it was this combination of visual and textual evidence that enabled the librarians to correlate loose leaves with items from their collections. ‘In the physical world, no two objects are identical, and if a page is moved from a book, it leaves something behind,’ he told me. ‘It’s a jigsaw puzzle, to some extent.’
This puzzle comprised seemingly endless, sometimes microscopic pieces. Pages carry physical evidence of their unique lives, just as a human thumb can be identified by not only the fingerprint, but freckles, scars and veins. Historic books were hand-sewn together, meaning that sometimes the holes of a page fall in exactly the same place as stitches in the book. If a page is folded and the book closed, even for a little while, it leaves a mark. Perhaps the stain, wormhole or tear on the facing page mirrors the spot on the loose page. Some historic books have coloured edges, some have chain-lines, some have meandering notes: traces which can all identify a missing page.
The mutilated works mainly originated from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, although a few items were printed in the nineteenth and twentieth. Broadly speaking, they were centred on West European engagement with the Middle East, Mesopotamia, Persia and the Mughal Empire: travel writings, cultural, intellectual and anthropological studies, with fascinatingly evocative titles like Unheard-of Curiosities and A History of Monsters.
A Relation of Some Yeares Travaile perfectly exemplifies the type of book which interested Hakimzadeh. Printed in 1634, the work describes Herbert’s impressions of ‘Afrique and the Greater Asia, Especially the Territories of the Persian Monarchie’. Through rich text, poetry, maps, vocabulary tables and wonderful illustrations of people, places and strange beasts, the author explores ‘the Religion, Language, Qualities, Customes, Habit… and Fashions’ of the regions. ‘That was decidedly a theme,’ said Jensen. ‘But there were a few things which didn’t fit. I never understood why The Milkmaid of Islington fitted into that pattern.’
Hakimzadeh never took whole items from the British Library or Bodleian, and librarians noted that the loose leaves roughly fell into three categories: pages of text, portraits or other illustrations, and maps. When reviewing the range of missing pages, these mutilations made no sense. Map thefts are lucrative, with loose pages fetching good prices on the market, and illustrated leaves can also be sold individually. But the textual thefts – of title pages, random sections from the body of the work, and even parts of indexes – bewildered staff, as did his methods. ‘Pages were often sliced with a scalpel, but sometimes they were just ripped out,’ said Clive Hurst, who was the Bodleian’s Head of Rare Books at the time. ‘It seemed that whoever took them was interested in the map or the plate itself and didn’t mind having rough edges.’ These questions were answered with the raid of Hakimzadeh’s flat. There, investigators found books with pages that were either absent or in poor condition. It seemed he had been taking library leaves to complete his own flawed copies of the same works.
At the time, Hurst wondered whether this could account for all of the erratic patterns of mutilation the librarians had found. He thought that perhaps pages of text had been torn out to save time taking notes and that certain plates – especially images of important historical figures – had simply taken the thief’s fancy, regardless of whether they would make their way into another collection. But there was another, subtle link between the stolen pages. ‘He had a peculiar fascination with a particular page and we found it was missing from a lot of the books he’d mutilated,’ Hurst told me. ‘It was almost his signature.’
This particular page was number 99/100. Its absence from many of their books puzzled staff from both libraries. Perhaps, they speculated, such a pattern highlighted the thief’s kleptomania: theft not for personal gain, but due to impulsive urges; theft for thrill and power; theft for the sake of theft. But, as it later emerged, this ‘signature’ pointed towards a more practical explanation. A number of libraries stamp portrait plates, while others mark certain numbered pages. With these pages emblazoned with the name or emblem of an institution, the items are less desirable to thieves, who either have to destroy the books to hide this branding, or sell them on with incriminating evidence.
It transpired that some libraries use a system whereby they mark with their own stamp pages 99/100, 199/200, and so on. The fact that Hakimzadeh had taken these particular pages – which remain unstamped in British Library and Bodleian books – suggests that he was ‘completing’ volumes previously belonging to other institutions, in which those pages were stamped. This raised the prospect of a wider circle of thefts. Investigators wondered whether the copies into which he inserted the stolen pages were innocently acquired second-hand, or whether they were also stolen goods. Either way, no libraries which use the 99/100 stamping system came forward to claim the books, and this avenue remains unexplored.
The Crown Prosecution based their case on a small number of specimen charges: more than was needed for a conviction, and evidence for each single item was time- and resource-consuming. Faced with these charges, on 9 November 2007, Hakimzadeh pleaded not guilty, weaving a tale of having obtained the pages second-hand.
The following February, his defence team appointed antiquarian bookseller David Slade as their expert witness. After several inspections of the vandalised books, he wrote a statement denying claims of Hakimzadeh’s thefts. But in March 2008, Slade himself was arrested and convicted of stealing over £230,000 in books from Sir Evelyn de Rothschild – whose collection he had been cataloguing. A few months later, Hakimzadeh pleaded guilty to eleven of the twelve charges. But the question of motive was left unanswered; a question which remained at the heart of the court case.
Hakimzadeh’s barrister, William Boyce QC, argued that the multimillionaire had no need for financial gain: this was, instead, an obsession. Certainly, Hakimzadeh was proud of his rare book collection. He regarded it as the most significant in the world for his area of interest, which centred on Early Modern European encounters with the wider Middle East. During his trial, the court heard that the defendant was so fixated with his collection he left his conjugal bed to polish the covers of his volumes on his wedding night.
One medical report, submitted to the court as evidence, suggested that Hakimzadeh had an ‘acquisitive personality disorder’. In the early nineteenth century, the physician John Ferriar coined the term ‘bibliomania’ in a poem dedicated to a book-obsessed friend. ‘What wild desires, what restless torments seize/The hapless man, who feels the book-disease,’ he wrote. Although much has been written on the subject since, by psychologists and historians alike, the condition is not widely acknowledged as a mental disorder in its own right, falling under other compulsive conditions.
The affliction is generally defined as the uncontrolled collecting or hoarding of books, and can also encompass book-stealing. Those suffering from the disorder are governed by the compulsive need to accumulate volumes, often to the detriment of social relations, health and wealth. Perhaps the most infamous case is that of Stephen Carrie Blumberg who, after two decades of frenzied thefts, by 1991 had hoarded over 20,000 books stolen from roughly 300 libraries and museums in 45 states across America. Crucially, bibliomania is characterised by the collecting of books with no intrinsic value, either intellectual or monetary, to the afflicted: books are collected simply because they are books.
Wheale noted that library thieves are often driven to steal by the desire to own items, rather than by financial profit. ‘People are interested in the pretty things in books,’ she said. ‘We lost a painted title page from one of our books, which was a very famous copy, you couldn’t sell it. It was just somebody who wanted it.’
But the question of whether Hakimzadeh ever sold his books seemed to directly contradict the notion of an ‘acquisitive personality disorder’. If driven to obsession by the need to possess, why would he then sell the coveted object? After all, despite his barrister’s claims, Hakimzadeh had traded his stolen goods. A seventeenth-century book, The Muse of Newmarket, had been sold by him at Bloomsbury Auctions; the volume contained a title page sliced from a British Library copy.
The book sold at around £2,000. Hakimzadeh’s defence argued that the sale was a mistake – a strange slip for someone so allegedly infatuated with his books. And although many book traders provided helpful information throughout the investigation and trial, some auction houses were reluctant to pass on details of Hakimzadeh’s sales. Interestingly, a significantly lower proportion of leaves from sixteenth-century books were recovered. Librarians wondered whether more of those pages had been used to boost sales prices of incomplete copies.
Nevertheless, the court concluded that Hakimzadeh’s motive was not to sell for cash, but to improve the scale of his collection. Although, as His Honour Judge Peter Ader ruled, speculating on such motives would not reverse the damage caused. ‘You have a deep love of books, perhaps so deep that it goes to excess,’ he said, passing sentence. ‘I have no doubt that you were stealing in order to enhance your library and your collection. Whether it was for money or for a rather vain wish to improve your collection is perhaps no consolation to the losers.’
On 16 January 2009, Hakimzadeh was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and ordered to pay £7,500 towards prosecution costs. As the judge read this aloud, Hakimzadeh slowly nodded. Family members, watching from the gallery, wept.
Of course, the court was only considering a handful of thefts that could be clearly proven, not the hundreds of items Hakimzadeh was suspected of damaging, nor the many loose leaves found in his possession which could have belonged to a library, but not conclusively. Although the CPS told the British Library that relying on just twelve specimen charges would not heavily affect the case, in the end it did influence many aspects of the process, including the length of the jail sentence and amount of compensation. Moreover, police had only searched one of his flats. Not only did they later discover that he owned other parts of the Knightsbridge building (for which no further search warrants were sought), but his collection was also scattered geographically. In correspondence obtained during the investigation, Hakimzadeh mentions that his main place of business is in Houston, Texas: ‘Although the books all eventually end up in the USA, they should always be returned to London for my cataloguing staff.’ In any case, on 27 April 2009, Hakimzadeh’s defence appealed on the basis of a technicality – outmoded guidance on sentencing had initially been applied – and his sentence was halved.
Hakimzadeh was, according to the Court of Appeal, ‘of very positive good character’. He was 61 years old. He had already suffered ‘considerable loss of reputation and humiliation’. He ‘accepted full responsibility for his criminality’. He left prison after serving one year.
An out-of-court settlement was reached, and the British Library subsequently allocated funds to try to replace the mutilated books – although such rare works seldom appear on the antiquarian market, if ever. Jensen declined to mention the exact amount the library received. However, during the investigation, items Hakimzadeh admitted to stealing were valued at around £71,000 – one 500-year-old map by royal artist Hans Holbein the Younger was alone worth £30,000. The price of other suspected thefts soared into hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Of course, the worth of books does not lie in their financial status alone. Incomplete items have lost their value to researchers and some of the books, already fragile, have been entirely destabilised by the random damage. Furthermore, many scholars analyse the physical book itself to explore how it was made, the intended readership, how it was used. Our historic record of British engagement with the Middle East has been irrevocable damaged, both textually and physically.
The importance of rare books also lies in their role within a collection; in this specific case, the mutilated items demonstrated British collectors’ interest in understanding that part of the world. These are beautiful objects, carefully created with the most sumptuous decorations – engraved metal clasps, ornately embossed covers, handwritten titles and detailed illustrations – demonstrating what prized possessions they were for previous owners. Several of the mutilated volumes belonged to the historic collection of the English monarchs, donated to the nation in 1757. Hakimzadeh did not simply deface and steal books from an institution; he raided public heritage. ‘Damaging early books is like defacing statues or damaging works of art in a national gallery,’ Wheale said. ‘It seems an odd thing to do. It’s brutal.’
In the end, the British Library recovered a total of eighty-nine pages, stolen from forty books, and the Bodleian received only one: a frontispiece portrait marked by their stamp. But most of these pages had been completely transformed: coloured or gilt edges removed, sandpapered down to erase stamps, washed, bleached or cropped, sometimes so severely they were missing text.
Hakimzadeh had employed qualified bookbinders to seamlessly fit the pages into his volumes. Instructions to a conservator, passed onto librarians during the investigation, ordered ‘repairs’ to look as discreet as possible. After considering the matter, police and librarians decided there was no evidence to ascertain whether the book restorers were conscious that they were concealing stolen goods. No further investigation of this was pursued. Bizarrely, additional pages were passed onto the British Library through Hakimzadeh’s lawyers, following the final settlement. After his conviction, the thief had declared them the property of the library, perhaps attempting to reduce any potential compensation from civil proceedings. But most, it transpired, had never belonged to the British Library.
For the leaves rightfully returned, most almost unrecognisable, true restoration was impossible. Their removal from Hakimzadeh’s books required more damage to the page, or entirely destroying the historic binding, and reinserting them to mutilated volumes could further weaken them. Several items were reunited with just a few of their missing leaves. British Library readers can request the mutilated copies – which arrive accompanied by handwritten notes describing the absent pages – and view the sliced stubs for themselves. ‘And the books shall for always show that damage which is, of course, distressing,’ mused Jensen. ‘That’s the nature of objects; they will carry evidence of their past.’
Surveying the damage now, it is easy to see why it remained undetected for so long. If a reader selected one of the books – a rare occurrence for such a specialist subject – they would only observe missing pages when carefully reading that specific part of text. Leaves were cut so close to the spine that remaining stubs are barely visible and they can still pass unnoticed, even if you know they are there. Chief Inspector Dave Cobb explained: ‘Hakimzadeh took care to select material that only an expert would be able to identify, as early printed books are unique. The original owner might have commissioned additional illustrations, or pages might have been missing when the libraries acquired them.’
In court, it also emerged that Hakimzadeh had previously been caught stealing elsewhere. In 1998, he had reached a settlement of £75,000 with the Royal Asiatic Society for taking ninety-four books from their collection. Although libraries have secure networks where they share information on thieves, Hakimzadeh’s settlement included a confidentiality agreement, which allowed his activity at other institutions to go unmonitored.
Catching thieves red-handed is no easy matter, with techniques constantly evolving. Staff search personal papers when readers exit the room, but leaves could always be smuggled out beneath clothing. A fragment of a Stanley knife blade can be inserted under a fingernail, to stealthily run along a book’s inner spine. Occasionally maps and illustrations are already left loose within the volume. From the records, it seems Hakimzadeh often ordered items to the Duke Humfrey’s Library at the Bodleian. The medieval reading room, panelled in dark, varnished wood, contains unsupervised alcoves. Staff can hear readers shifting in their seats and pacing the creaky mezzanine platforms that run overhead, but the carrels are tucked out of sight.
Following the case, the libraries updated their security measures. In the Bodleian, new cameras were installed. Duke Humfrey’s now has alarms, which sound when a book is removed, and readers can no longer order items from the special collection to that particular room. At the British Library, sight lines in the Rare Books Reading Room were shifted around by reducing shelving at the end of each table. As with Bentham’s imagined panopticon, staff can now survey every desk. Other, less visible steps taken have not been publicised – the library is keeping its cards close. But to be effective, CCTV cameras must be constantly monitored; body searches cannot, and will not ever, be carried out; and blind spots will always remain. ‘There always has been the occasional theft, but you can’t run a library on the basis that people are going to steal things,’ said Hurst. ‘Like someone who is determined to steal clothes from Debenhams – they can do it, but the shop assumes that most of us won’t steal.’
The process of investigation sparked by the missing page of Thomas Herbert’s travel writings extended far beyond that of the criminal examination. In the years following the discovery, the British Library created several teams – of library assistants, then curators, then preservation staff – to assess the damage in detail. A rare books specialist has now re-catalogued all items read by Hakimzadeh at the British Library, with the total number of damaged texts climbing to 162. At the Bodleian, such an audit is impossible. The thefts appear to have spanned a period when the library stopped using records, with computerisation on the horizon. Staff believe more mutilations are still to be found, and indeed, they have in recent years been approached by readers with sliced books that fall roughly within Hakimzadeh’s pattern.
Doubtless, many more damaged volumes sit within the silent stacks of these libraries – perhaps others too – with vacant pages awaiting future discovery. And who can say where these missing pages are to be found: slotted into tomes, piled into folders, in auction houses or personal collections.
But for those mutilated books, still a part of the nation’s historic collection, the damage has been done. Page stubs and stolen text, for all to see and none to read.