On a wet night in January 2017, Bucharest’s answer to the Ocean’s Eleven heist team scaled a 50ft warehouse wall near Heathrow. It was as if they were “undertaking a special-ops raid”, says Marc Wortman in Vanity Fair. With “Mission: Impossible skill”, they made off with $3.4m worth of books, including some of “the most significant printed works in European history”.
They dangled down on ropes from a skylight like trapeze artists, avoiding the alarms and cameras in the warehouse. Over the course of five hours, they stuffed a 1777 edition of Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Albert Einstein’s own 1621 copy of astronomer Johannes Kepler’s The Cosmic Mystery and 238 more irreplaceable works into bags, then disappeared into the night.
Scotland Yard was stunned. But the warehouse heists kept happening — jewellery, laptops, tablets, smartphones, clothes. For two and a half years, Gavril Popinciuc carried out raids, becoming Interpol’s most wanted fugitive. He was a wealthy cigarette racketeer from Romania and heir to the crime family of his “godfather”, Ioan Clamparu. After studying his mentor’s mistakes – Clamparu stayed local – he sent “particularly agile and strong” soldiers around Europe. Most led “double lives” with happy families, nipping off for quick “business trips” outside Romania. Culturally important books were harder to sell than laptops, but useful collateral. Police chiefs on Popinciuc’s tail feared the books would be destroyed if they closed the net too quickly.
But there was a happy ending. On June 25, 2019, Europol sent 150 officers to 45 houses in Britain, Italy, Germany and Romania. They picked up the whole gang. The books were found intact beneath a concrete floor in a Romanian chateau. Their seller, an eccentric named Alessandro Bisello, was overjoyed. “Tonight,” he told a gathering of book dealers and Romanian and English investigators, “we drink like lions!”
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