When Textual Scholarship catches out a thief: The Folger and the Durham First Folio

by Anna Blanch on June 18, 2010

It has the makings of a good, but not great B side flick. intrigue, theft, transcontinental travel, the work of a research librarian…

 A hearing commenced yesterday in Newcastle Crown Court alleging Raymond Scott, 53 a former book dealer who posed an international building magnate and playboy of theft, handling stolen goods, and removing criminal property relating to the 1998 theft of a 1623 copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio from an exhibition at Durham University. Scott was “found out” when he presented the work to the Folger Library in Washington, DC in 2008 requesting verification of its authenticity.

Scott, the court heard, stole the book from a secured glass cabinet in an exhibition of ancient English literature at the university’s Palace Green Library in December 1998.

The prosecutor describes Scott’s initial approach to the Library in comic detail (from UK Independent):

Prosecuting at Newcastle Crown Court, Robert Smith QC said the investigation began when Scott, dressed in a billowing T-shirt and wearing diamond rings, walked into the research department of the Folger Library and asked to see the librarian. Claiming to be the multi-millionaire son of a building contractor, he said he had discovered the book while visiting friends in Havana. It had been kept in a wooden Bible box at the home of his Cuban friend’s recently deceased mother for more than 50 years, he said. She referred to it as “the old English book” and had passed it on with a collection of antiquarian books printed in Spanish to her soldier son, Mr Smith said Scott had claimed.

It is alleged that Scott tore the binding and boards and removed the frontispiece and last page in an attempt to disguise the work. However, he was caught out by a simple case of textual scholarship. The Research Librarians at The Folger, which houses a third of the world’s surviving copies of the First Folio, established that the book was the stolen Durham copy by matching the folio’s dimensions and a hand-written note on the folio’s catalogue, referring to the play Troilus And Cressida. The Librarians then called the FBI, the British Embassy and the Durham Police

And that, my scholarly friends, is how textual scholarship can catch a thief! 

Anna M Blanch is founder of Goannatree, candidate and a PhD  in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland.

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