LONDON - At least 150 valuable antiquarian books on Japanese studies and art kept at the Japanese Embassy in London were stolen by a British man entrusted with the collection over the past three years, sources close to the case said Monday.
The man, who managed the library, has owned up to most of the charges against him.
However, recovery of the works, which are part of a collection maintained by the Japan Society, will be difficult because they have already been sold or auctioned off, the sources said, adding that the combined market value of the books and artwork runs into the tens of millions of yen.
The Japan Society, led by former British Ambassador to Japan John Whitehead and Lord Trenchard, comprises scholars on Japanese studies in Britain, with Japanese Ambassador to Britain Sadayuki Hayashi serving as honorary president.
The man suspected of the theft was dispatched by the Japan Society to organize the collection at the embassy’s library and was authorized by the mission to enter the library, embassy officials said.
The rare books and art had been collected by the society since its establishment in 1891. The society entrusted the collection to the embassy in 1991.
One of the stolen books is “The History of Japan,” written by Engelbert Kaempfer, a German scholar who visited Japan in the mid-Edo Period (1600-1868). The book was published in 1727 and has a current market value of around 3 million yen.
Also missing are “Atlas Japannensis,” a book written by Dutch missionary Arnoldus Montanus in 1669 worth around 2 million yen today, and various works of art donated to the embassy by the Imperial family, the sources said.
The books and artwork were sold through auctions at Christies and by the man himself when he visited Japan last summer, the sources said.
The theft was discovered after a person connected with the Japan Society spotted a book that had been donated to the society at a bookstore.