Stolen Archives returned

“In 2002 archivists at the Belgian State
Archives in Liège became suspicious of a reader and managed to catch him in
the act of stealing documents. The arrest led to the recovery of some 100,000
pieces purloined from several major archives in Western Europe and the United
Kingdom during the 1980s and 1990s. They were all deposited in Liège for
sorting and returning to their legitimate repositories, an operation that has
been going on for the past 20 years. This summer has seen some new
restitutions, which have been covered by mainstream media, e.g.:

“Wellington papers return after crooks meet their Waterloo” (see full text
below FYI)

“Quand les archivistes liégeois démantèlent un trafic international” (with

Before the arrest, thousands of stolen documents had already been sold and are
probably in private collections or back on the market – to quote from the
article below, “the story continues.”


Wellington papers return after crooks meet their Waterloo
By Jack Blackburn
The Times (London), July 15, 2023
If one thinks of international criminal networks, what usually comes to mind
is people trafficking guns or drugs, not old archival material.
However, the exposure of a ring of thieves in Belgium has led to the retrieval
of thousands of documents, including papers signed by the Duke of Wellington,
which have now been returned to Britain.
The criminals were stealing the documents to make money by selling them to
collectors. Teams are still scanning websites and auctions to find and
retrieve lost materials.
The British embassy in Brussels announced yesterday that it had received the
documents, which were seized by police in 2001. It has taken two decades for
archivists to sort through them, as so many had been taken. The thief who was
initially caught had stolen two tonnes of items on his own, while others were
also convicted after the investigation.
The documents are being sent to the National Archives, where they will be
assessed before a decision is taken on where they should be filed, or whether
they should be given to a museum or library. They include a number of items
signed by Wellington during the Napoleonic wars, as well as pieces in the hand
of Earl Spencer at the time, ancestor of the late Princess Diana and the
present Prince of Wales.
Similar donations have been made to the French, German and Dutch governments.
The criminals apparently gathered their collection over ten to 15 years, with
one method of stealing being to enter the archive with a briefcase that had a
false bottom. They would ask to withdraw a number of documents and then,
before returning them, concealed a few in the case. The first criminal was
apprehended in the state archive in Liège after an archivist noticed that
documents were missing and grew suspicious.
“He was always asking for very different types of archives: mostly Napoleonic,
but he could also ask for early modern archives,” Dr Bernard Wilkin, of the
state archives in Liège, said. “That is really unusual because usually people
come with a purpose. They usually don’t cross periods of time.”
It seems that he gathered so many documents almost by accident, apparently
going into the archives and grabbing as much as he thought he could get away
After the Liège thief had received a five-year sentence, the archives were
charged with sorting through the immense number of documents. During this
work, the decision was taken to return some to countries for whom they would
be more relevant.
France, for instance, has received 550 documents, including a letter signed by
Louis XIII and addressed to Cardinal Richelieu. For Wilkin though, the story
continues. All year round, he and other archivists have their eyes kept on
sites such as Ebay, as well as the catalogues of leading auction houses,
looking for stolen documents that have come to light. “Last year personally I
recovered about 800 pages of Napoleonic documents,” Wilkin said.
Announcing the transfer of the documents, the British embassy in Brussels
offered its thanks to Wilkins. Alongside the Wellington and Spencer materials
is a letter about HMS Britannia, as well as personal letters between soldiers
which may be of historical interest.” (Exlibris-L)

See also:

OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Klaus Graf (23. Juli 2023). Stolen Archives returned. Archivalia. Abgerufen am 17. Juli 2024 von

Autor: Klaus Graf

Historiker und Archivar, Blogger

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