British Library seeks £300,000 damages from book vandal

• Academic cut and stole pages from rare works
• Civil claim against Iranian jailed for two years

The British Library is claiming damages of more than £300,000 from an Iranian academic who was jailed for two years for stripping pages out of ancient books, the Guardian understands.

Farhad Hakimzadeh, 60, used a scalpel to remove leaves from the priceless books, which date back to the 16th Century and chart the travels of westerners in the Middle East. Appearing at Wood Green crown court in London for sentencing yesterday, Hakimzadeh, who lives in a £3m home in Knightsbridge, south-west London, claimed he suffered from an obsessive compulsive disorder which forced him to remove the pages to complete his own extensive collection.

The court heard that his obsession was such that he left his marital bed on his wedding night to polish his books, but that he also made monetary gain, selling one of his own books with a stolen page inserted into it for more than £2,000.

Passing sentence, Judge Peter Ader told Hakimzadeh: "I have no doubt you were stealing for gain in order to enhance your library and your collection. It seems to me it was a kind of vanity that you wanted to have the best library in your field."

The court heard that Hakimzadeh's own library was the fourth best in the world in its field. "You should have known better," the judge said. "Once a unique book is damaged it is damaged forever. What you did was a gross breach of trust."

Hakimzadeh, the director of a publishing firm, nodded as the judge said he would spend a year in prison before release would be considered. He was ordered to pay £7,500 in costs after admitting 14 counts of theft and asking for 20 other offences to be taken into consideration.

The court heard he had stolen 94 items from the Royal Asiatic Society in 1998, but paid the library £75,000 as compensation. The British Library is pursuing its own civil claim for damages in excess of £300,000 from Hakimzadeh. The claim takes into account the priceless nature of some of the books he damaged which cannot be restored.

Christopher Amor, prosecuting, said in 2006 a reader at the British Library had noticed several leaves had been removed from a 17th-century book by the traveller and historian Sir Thomas Herbert. "This began an inquiry, whereby it was discovered a number of pages and maps had been removed from books in the library."

The library recovered 30 items from Hakimzadeh's flat, some of which were inserted into his copies of the same books. More than 100 pages from the ancient books have not been found. Hakimzadeh's haul over a seven-year period included a 500-year-old map painted by Henry Vlll's court artist, Hans Holbein, which was worth £32,000. Hakimzadeh also stole from the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

When police searched his flat and found some of the missing pages, Hakimzadeh claimed he had bought them in Portobello market. Amor said: "Quite clearly, as far as these thefts are concerned, they strike at the heart of two major libraries, making the vandalism particularly harmful. And he is an author himself with a profound knowledge. That only makes the situation worse, because he of all people knew the importance of what he was mutilating."

Kristian Jensen, the head of British collections at the library, said that the books from which Hakimzadeh had stolen were mainly about the British colonisation and exploration of the Middle East. "This is the targeted mutilation, over a number of years, and an attack on the nation's collective memory of its past," he added.

Detective Chief Inspector Dave Cobb, of the Metropolitan police, said: "[Hakimzadeh] chose unique and rare editions and was therefore able to go undetected for some time. Following the discovery of damage to one volume, an audit of Hakimzadeh's activities at the libraries revealed the extent of his offending."

Contributor

Sandra Laville, crime correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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