The theft of the 200-plus rare books, including incunabula, early books and manuscripts belonging to three dealers, was widely publicised due to the incredible way they were stolen.
The theft was described at the time as ‘Mission: Impossible-style’ as thieves abseiled into the site to take the items.
The books had originally been destined for The California International Antiquarian Book Fair but were taken from trunks housed in a warehouse in Feltham, near Heathrow, on the night of January 29, 2017.
Officers from the Met’s specialist crime south team, in partnership with the Romanian National Police, recovered the books earlier this week from a rural location in Romania following the search of a house.
The books, which include 17th century works by Italian astronomer Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton and the 18th century Spanish painter Francisco Goya, were discovered buried in an underground storage area.
Over the past three years the Met has been working in conjunction with officers from the Romanian National Police and Italian Carabinieri, supported by Europol and Eurojust, on the operation to recover the books and bring the offenders to justice.
Detective Inspector Andy Durham, from the Met’s Specialist Crime South, said: “This recovery is a perfect end to this operation and is a demonstration of successful joint working between the Met and our European law enforcement partners in Romania and Italy – and at Europol and Eurojust.
"These books are extremely valuable, but more importantly they are irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage.
"If it wasn’t for the hard work of Detective Constable David Ward and others in this Joint Investigation Team these books would have been sadly lost to the world forever.”
The Met investigation identified the suspects involved were part of a Romanian Organised Crime Group (OCG) that were responsible for high-value warehouse burglaries across the UK.
The Met police said the OCG is linked to a number of prominent Romanian crime families who form part of the Clamparu crime group.
Thirteen individuals were charged in the UK with conspiring to commit burglaries between December 2016 and April 2019, and to acquire criminal property.
Court proceedings continue at this time, with 12 individuals having already pleaded guilty and sentencing is due to take place over four days, beginning on September 28. The 13th defendant will be tried in March 2021.
The Antiquarian Booksellers' Association’s president Roger Treglown said: “We are absolutely delighted that the books have been recovered, and the international police operation has been incredible – we are all very grateful. The ABA has been at the forefront of initiatives such as the ILAB stolen books chain. We make it as difficult as possible for stolen material to circulate in the legitimate trade, and work closely with the police to reunite books with their rightful owners. It would have been almost impossible for the thieves to sell these books on the open market.”
Book dealer and ABA member Tim Bryars added: “Early printed books aren't really 'duplicates': printed and bound by hand, with signatures, notes and other marks of ownership, each example has something fresh to tell us about who owned them and how the books were read and used. So when the police said these books are 'irreplaceable and are of great importance to international cultural heritage’ that's very true.”