This is a remarkable “truth is stranger than fiction” tale. The characters and facts are dazzling, amusing and appalling.
But the point of this post is not simply to recount a “ripping yarn.” The story illustrates how the specialized skills of librarians led to the recovery of a stolen First Folio which had been missing for 10 years. The Folger Library Staff demonstrated extraordinary results from utilizing the professional expertise, judgment and sleuthing that are the hallmarks of a successful research librarian. The ability of the members of the Folger staff to think on their feet, to meet the unexpected inquiry with dispassion and objectivity, to communicate so effectively with a charlatan that he turned over a stolen treasure, and to develop strategies to delay returning the volume until its true provenance could be established saved a cultural treasure. They applied their extraordinary knowledge of bibliographic research and “CSI -like” forensic skills to solving an international mystery involving the FBI, Scotland Yard and the Constabulary of Durham, England.
Last week the Folger Shakespeare Library hosted a lecture To Catch a Thief: Recovering the Durham First Folio . Steven Galbraith, Curator of Books and Renate Mesmer, Head of Conservation, recounted the remarkable story with brilliant humor using the documentation they had prepared for the FBI and the Durham Constabulary to successfully prosecute Raymond Scott.
First Folios were printed in 1623, 8 years after Shakespeare’s death and contained the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays. Since no original Shakespeare manuscripts survive, the First Folios were the only source for 18 plays. It that likely that Macbeth and As You Like It would have been unknown today without the printing of the First Folio. Although all the Folios were produced on a printing press, no two copies were identical, due to variations in spelling, misprints, and variations in page trimming. Over the years each acquired additional unique features as they were bound and rebound, gilded or damaged. A specilialized reference work, The Shakespeare First Folio by Anthony James West was consulted by the librarians as the most current census of First Folios which are located around the globe and it identified some of the unique characteristics of the Durham Folio which could be compared with the book that had landed at the Folger.
In December 1998 the Durham First Folio disappeared from a glass case in the Durham University Library in Northeastern UK. The estimated value at the time was $3 million pounds.
Act One – The Con Man at the Folger
On June 16th, 2008, Raymond Scott, walked into the Folger Library in Washington DC and asked to see the Librarian because he needed assistance valuing an old book which had come into his possession. Librarian Richard Kuhta was stunned when Scott pulled a book resembling a First Folio from a plastic bag. The volume was missing it’s binding, title and final pages. He explained that he had gotten the book from a friend in Cuba who became known through the course of the investigation as the “Cuban Cutie.” He claimed to be an wealthy bibliophile, with homes across Europe. He bolstered the Cuba story by handing Kuhta a box of Cuban cigars, the first in a series of increasingly expensive “gifts” to be left on Kuhta’s desk. Scott pressed Kuhta to confirm the book’s value.He even suggested that it was a First Folio although the book was missing it’s title page. Kuhta, who was growing ever more suspicious, convinced Scott to leave the book at the Folger so the staff could study the volume more closely. The Folger’s Head of Reference, Georgianna Ziegler moved the book to the vault and staff started investigating the book’s provenance
Several days later Scott returned and was told that the preliminary assessment indicated that the book was a First Folio, but Kuhta bought more time by saying they needed additional confirmation and didn’t return the book to Scott. Scott returned on repeated visits bringing expensive ties, cigars and at one point put $2,500 on Kuhta’s desk. Kuhta took the money and immediately enrolled Scott as a member in the “Renaissance Circle” of Folger supporters.
On his last visit to the Library, Scott brought a cake for afternoon tea which he had ordered from the chef at the Mayflower Hotel. The cake bore an inscription “Shakespeare First Folio?” with Shakespeare misspelled!
Stephen Massey a well known, rare book appraiser based in New York was brought in and he identified the volume as the stolen Durham First Folio. Renate Mesmer, the Curator set to work on forensic tests to provide additional evidence that could be used in court to support the identification of the Folio. Her tests included studying the remnants of the book binding which was determined to be of goatskin, like the cover of the stolen folio. Through bibliographic research, she located photocopies of pages of the Durham Folio in England which showed that the stitches in the binding matched the stitching in the damaged folio.Durham Folio Evidence
Kuhta then notified the FBI, the Head of Durham University and Scotland Yard.
Act Two – The Investigation
The Durham Constabulary determined that Raymond Scott was not a a wealthy, international, bon vivant, but an unemployed 51 year old bachelor who lived with his mother in public housing. on Widgon Close. He lived on public assistance and had piled up massive credit card debt. The constables went to the home and found 1,000 books (many later determined to be stolen) and interrogated Scott. The tabloids descended on the sleepy town of Washington Tyne and Ware. Neighbors revealed that Scott drove a series of expensive cars, a Ferrari, a Rolls-Royce, a Lamborghini… Scott revelled in the tabloid attention brought on by the investigation and posed swilling Dom Perignon from jeweled, champagne flutes that he routinely carried around in his briefcase.
He had a criminal history including 17 convictions and had used a variety of exotic aliases.
The Cuban Cutie, Heidi Rios was a 21 year old chorus girl from Havana to whom Scott was engaged. Scott claimed that Rios had introduced him to a former Castro bodyguard turned bibliophile who had “inherited” the mutilated First Folio. Scott had agreed to bring the book to the US for valuation for a share of the expected profits.
Act Three – The Trial
In 2010 Scott went on trial. Librarian, Richrd Kuhta was flown to England and testified for four hours. Scott continued to profess his innocence and demonstrate his talent for the outrageous by, arriving at court in various costumes, or in stretch limos or horse drawn carriages. In the end he was convicted of handling stolen property and removing it from the country but there was insufficient evidence to prove he had been involved in the original theft. He was convicted of the two lesser charges but not theft. The prosecutor had argued that Scott had in fact mutilated the Folio in an attempt to remove the characteristics that would identify it as the Durham First Folio. He was way out of his depth on that one! He clearly underestimated the awesome research skills and expert knowledge of bibliography demonstrated by the Folger librarians. The Judge in sentencing him to 8 years in Her Majesty’s Prison in Castington, described Scott’s crimes as “cultural vandalism” inflicted on a “quintessentially English treasure.”
The Terminal Jig
Scholars tell us that many of Shakespeare’s plays ended with a bawdy dance or a “terminal jig” performed by a jester or a comic actor. And so ends this tale…
Sadly, the missing pages and binding have not been found, but the Durham First Folio is back home at the University of Durham where security has been dramatically improved since 1998.