- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 12, 2008

It’s not every midsummer day that a stranger with a British accent brings a rare volume of William Shakespeare’s plays into the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington asking to have the work evaluated and authenticated.

It’s even rarer when the text in question — a copy of the 1623 First Folio, the first collected edition of the Bard’s plays — turns out to be one that has been missing and presumed stolen from a display case in Durham University Library, in Northeast England, since 1998.

Ergo, the man suspected of that puckish deed on June 16 might now feel like the lowly Bottom — of Shakespeare’s romantic comedy “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” — who is turned partly into a donkey.

The man — identified by the Times of London on its Web site early Saturday as book dealer Raymond Scott, 51, — claimed to be an international businessman who had bought the volume in Cuba.

The Folger staff immediately thought something was rotten in the District.

“A lot of things rang bells,” says Gail Kern Paster, the library’s director. The Folger is a research center on Capitol Hill that is home to the world’s largest and finest collection of Shakespeare materials — it possesses considerably more First Folios than the British Library.

The Folger had its staff librarians and an independent appraiser verify that the work was indeed a long-sought copy of the First Folio. Then the library contacted the FBI, which contacted the British embassy, which then alerted Durham City police. Scotland Yard also joined the fray.

The tragi-comedy came to light Friday with the news that police had arrested and questioned a suspect Thursday and had found other historic manuscripts — with no indication that they were stolen — at the Durham home he shares with his mother.

Neighbors said eight vanloads of books and photographs were removed by police Thursday and Friday from Mr. Scott’s home, the Times of London reported.

Police also took away a silver Ferrari belonging to Mr Scott. Neighbors told the Times of London that he would wear wrap-around sunglasses and a dressing gown to wash the car and iron its seats before taking the bus into town to do his shopping.

Meanwhile, the precious book remains in the climate-controlled vaults at the Folger Library. Durham police were quoted in one report as saying authorities believed it would be safer than in “an FBI warehouse next to piles of cocaine and cannabis.”

Speaking of street value, Durham University estimates the Folio could be worth, if in perfect condition, $30 million. The volume will be returned to the university, whose chancellor is the well-known American writer Bill Bryson, himself the author of a book on Shakespeare.

“A First Folio is the first printed record we have of those plays,” says Garland Scott, Folger Library’s director of external relations. “For people who love Shakespeare, such a book is important beyond measure.” Only some 200 copies are known to exist.

“It’s not exactly easy to walk out with a folio,” Ms. Garland notes. “They are normally 17 by 22 inches or larger and quite heavy.”

The Folger has never seen a similar caper. Its staff are well trained and have good instincts about impish characters.

“We’ve been lucky,” says Ms. Garland. “Like all libraries of special collections, we are constantly reviewing our security measures and know where materials are at all times. There is a First Folio on permanent display that is rigged up to all kinds of security devices. If anyone tried to have contact with it, our security would be alerted at once. It probably even trips something with the police.”

“What’s more challenging,” she continues, “is that, as a working library, people use our collections all the time. That is what we want them to do, and that is why we exist.”

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