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'stolen' rare books sold at Christie's

Embassy's 'stolen' rare books sold at Christie's
By Thomas Harding

MORE than GBP.500,000 worth of rare books and artwork on Japan are said to have
been stolen from the Japanese Embassy and auctioned off, mainly via Christie's.
For the past two years, it is thought, a British voluntary librarian allegedly
stole about 150 books, selling them via the auction house and to private
dealers. The collection had been stored at the embassy by the Japan Society,
which promotes relations between Britain and Japan, because it had run out of
space and wanted greater security. The alleged theft was only discovered when
Sir Hugh Cortazzi, who was ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 84, saw rare books
he had donated to the club being sold in a bookshop. Sir Hugh, who was president
of the Japan Society from 1985 to 95, said: "I was browsing in a bookshop near
the British Museum when I was quite surprised to come across two books that I
had donated to the society. I reported the matter to the society who discovered
this very serious and quite extensive loss. This is a very significant
collection of antique books and illustrations." The matter was reported to
police and, after an investigation, detectives arrested a suspect aged 53.
Founded in 1891, the Japan Society, whose patron is the Duke of Gloucester, has
1,200 members, mostly academics or diplomats. In a letter to members, Robert
Guy, the society's executive director, said: "The collection has, over a period
of up to two years, been surreptitiously reduced. Evidence is now emerging that
a significant number of items from the historic collection have been sold
illegally. Needless to say, this is a severe blow. Some of the books are
irreplaceable." One member of the society became aware of the alleged theft
after Christie's told him that the GBP.10,000 worth of books he had bought in
auction were allegedly stolen. "I was amazed that an auction house with a
reputation like Christie's could sell this property. Also, the Japanese Embassy
is supposed to be one of the safest places after security was tightened
following the hostage-taking in Peru three years ago. But these books and
artwork were taken from under their noses and I think they are quite embarrassed
by that," he said. Christie's agreed to refund his money if he returned the
books. Among books that have gone missing is a very rare edition of The History
of Japan, published in 1727 and worth GBP.20,000 in Japan. It was written by
Engelbert Kaempfer, a German scholar and one of the first foreigners to live
there. Also missing are Atlas Japannensis, by the Dutch missionary Arnoldus
Montanus, published in 1669 and worth GBP.12,000, and works of art donated by
the Japanese imperial family. Some books have turned up in book stores in Tokyo.
Christie's, which is trying to retrieve the items auctioned between March and
October, said it had taken "every measure" to check them. A spokesman said: "It
is in our own interest to check out the provenance of all works of art. But,
unusually, things like this do occur. Christie's are fully aware of the
situation and are working in close conjunction with the relevant authorities." A
spokesman for the Japanese Embassy, in Piccadilly, said the Japan Society had
provided accreditation for its staff.

(Daily telegraph)


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