Rare books worth more than £2.5m that were stolen from a warehouse in west London in a daring Mission Impossible-style heist have been found buried under the floor of a house in rural Romania.
The recovery of the 200 books, which include first editions of significant works by Galileo and Sir Isaac Newton, is the culmination of a three-year police operation that involved raids on 45 addresses across three countries and led to charges against 13 people.
The books were stolen from a postal transit warehouse in Feltham in January 2017 en route to a specialist book auction in Las Vegas. Two men, Daniel David and Victor Opariuc, broke in by cutting holes into the warehouse roof before abseiling into the building, perching on shelving inside to avoid sensors that would have set off alarms.
In a five-hour operation they then took the books out the same way in 16 holdalls, leaving at 2.15am with a third man, Narcis Popescu, who had waited in a car. The vehicle was later discovered abandoned after being cleaned with bleach.
After the trials of most of the men involved in the case, who were tracked down after a DNA sample, which had escaped the clean-up, was found on a headrest in the car, the books were eventually tracked down to Neamt in north-east Romania. Local police officers who searched the property on Wednesday found the books, which included a rare edition of Newton’s Principia, stacked in neatly wrapped packages in a cement pit.
The Metropolitan police said the discovery was “a perfect end to this operation” and a tribute to the cooperation between British, Romanian and Italian police.
DI Andy Durham said: “These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage.”
The suspects were identified as being part of a Romanian organised crime group responsible for a string of high-value warehouse burglaries across the UK, often using the same method. The Met said the gang had typically avoided prosecution because members were flown into the UK to commit specific offences and flown out as soon as the crimes were completed, with the stolen property removed later by other people by different transport methods.
The gang was linked to a number of prominent Romanian crime families who formed part of the Clamparu crime group, the Met said.
The day after the books were stolen, Popescu rented a house in Balham, where the books were stored. Earlier this year a court heard that a few days later, two others, Marian Mamaliga and Ilie Ungureanu, entered the UK through Eurotunnel in a van, picked up the books, and took them out of the country.
The group was also linked to other successful raids using similar methods, stealing laptops and other electronics worth hundreds of thousands of pounds. In one case, they used ladders and ropes to scale a warehouse, cut holes to get in, and stole laptops worth about £150,000. Police estimated that goods worth another £2m were stolen in 11 offences.
The group was caught after Romanian police stopped Mamaliga’s van and found about 30 laptops inside without evidence of their purchase. Twelve of the group have pleaded guilty and will be sentenced later this month. A 13th defendant will be tried in March.