'Law is not on our side, but honour is. We won't give up'

May 12, 2006

Oxford's Christ Church College is involved in a dispute with a Japanese university over a book that was stolen from its library. Peter McGill investigates

Just over a decade ago, a rare 16th-century book on human anatomy was stolen from the library at Christ Church College, Oxford. It was one of 74 books removed illegally over three years by a music lecturer at the university. The thief was eventually discovered and prosecuted, and after eight years of investigation and arm-twisting, Christ Church recovered 73 of its stolen books.

All but De Humani Corporis Fabrica ( On the Structure of the Human Body ) by the Flemish anatomist Andreas Vesalius are back where they belong. Vesalius's work ended up at Nippon Dental University, and it is on display at its Museum of Medicine and Dentistry.

However, despite the string of appeals for the work to be returned to Oxford, Nippon Dental University refuses to give it back and is not obliged to under Japanese law. Now the campaign has been stepped up and Oxford is garnering support for its case from the British Library and Lambeth Palace among others.

"Law is not on our side, but honour is. We're determined not to give up,"

says Christopher Lewis, dean of Christ Church. "We do not want to insult them [Nippon Dental University]. They bought in good faith something that was stolen, and we would like them to return it."

The saga began with Simon Heighes, a lecturer and expert on baroque music who was attached to Queen's College and Oriel College at Oxford. Among his haul from Christ Church were first editions of Milton's Paradise Lo st and Darwin's On the Origin of Species , as well as works by Thomas Hobbes, Edmond Halley and Samuel Pepys.

Heighes was arrested in May 1995 just days after the college reported books missing. "He had left his name at Blackwells, where he sold Newton's Principia Mathematica for £64,000,'' says Janet McMullin, assistant librarian at Christ Church. After admitting to the thefts, Heighes was jailed for two years in December 1995 and ordered to pay compensation of £160,000. He has since resumed his career as a music critic. He declined to speak to The Times Higher about the Nippon Dental University case.

Heighes sold the stolen books to collectors in the UK and abroad. The Vesalius went to Sotheby's in London, which auctioned it on December 2, 1994, to Jonathan Hill, a New York dealer, for a hammer price of £7,000.

Sotheby's wrote to Hill on June 9, 1995, to say that the Vesalius should be returned to Christ Church, and that the auction house would refund his money. Hill did not co-operate, and four years later, Christ Church complained to the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America. Only then did Hill reveal that he had sold the book to Fumihiro Ohi, a Tokyo book dealer, for an undisclosed sum.

Then began four years of fruitless correspondence, in which Ohi said that an identical copy of the 1552 De Humani Corporis Fabrica would have to be offered for the owner to agree to its return. "I'd love to resolve the problem, but I don't like the way Oxford has treated me," Ohi told the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in September 2003. "They treat me as if I am a criminal."

David Morris, Oxford's Japan representative, by then had found the buyer.

He wrote to Sen Nakahara, president of Nippon Dental University, to assure him that Oxford had "no wish to damage the reputation of your university"

and hoped that the problem could be resolved "amicably", without harm to "the academic relationships, trust and friendship between Japan and Britain".

A reply came a week later. It was not from Nakahara, but from the curator of the Museum of Medicine and Dentistry, who said that after taking legal advice, the university had decided to keep the book. Under Japanese law, anyone who unwittingly buys a stolen item is obliged to return it only within two years from the time of its theft.

Morris wrote again to Nakahara last November. "It is only your institution that stubbornly refuses to address this extremely important moral issue,''

the letter said. "You must understand that this problem will not disappear; Oxford University will not rest until property stolen, now in your possession, is returned."

The letter cited support for Christ Church from Richard Palmer, the librarian and archivist of Lambeth Palace: "Any institution that knowingly keeps stolen property must forfeit its place in the international scholarly community." Lambeth Palace had unwittingly bought a Roman Catholic missal from the reign of Queen Mary that Heighes had stolen from Christ Church. It was returned as soon as its provenance was discovered.

"We wouldn't want to hold on to a book that came from another collection,"

Palmer says. "I'm discouraged that a Japanese institution did not see it that way. I'm sure they would be screaming if someone stole something from them and wouldn't give it back."

"Christ Church has my full sympathy,'' says Kristian Jensen, head of British and Early Printed Collections at the British Library. "I share its view that whether or not there is a legal case, there is a clear moral case. At the British Library, we are very concerned to ensure retrospectively that our collections were acquired in the proper way. We hope and expect everyone else at academic institutions to do the same."

Another voice of support comes from Lord Rees, master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and president of the Royal Society. "Trinity College is the sister of Christ Church, and I hope they get it (the book) back," he says.

Ironically, such scholarly unity and openness does not seem to extend to disclosing thefts of rare publications. Heighes also stole from Queen's College library at Oxford, and from Trinity College of Music at Greenwich, yet neither institution will discuss the thefts.

Asked about them, Amanda Saville, the librarian at Queen's, said: "I have no information to give you. You will have to speak to the provost, Sir Alan Budd.'' Sir Alan, a former chief economic adviser to the Treasury and a founding member of the Bank of England's Monetary Policy Committee, referred questions to John Blair, a history fellow at Queen's who represents the library on the college's governing body.

But Blair sent me back to square one. "You'd better ask Amanda Saville for details about the books stolen by Heighes," he said. Told that Saville had declined to comment and had suggested the provost, Blair said that Sir Alan had "no authority to discuss this with journalists" and that the governing body would have to agree any disclosure. Asked why, Blair replied, "I do not like the tone of your questions and the direction this is taking." He then put down the telephone.

Richard Ovenden, keeper of special collections and Western manuscripts at the Bodleian Library, heads the rare books group of the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals. He also declined to speak to The Times Higher , as did Kevin O'Brien, head of Manchester University's dental school. The school is one of 15 universities that make up the International Union of Schools of Oral Health, which was set up by Nippon Dental University in 1985.

Part of the reason for the sensitivity over the thefts might be the increase in the number of such cases in recent years. "There's been an enormous rise in the commercial value of old books and manuscripts, which has made them more attractive to thieves," Palmer says. Antique maps became prime targets because they could be smuggled out easily, hidden inside other books after being cut from their bindings, McMullin says.

Christ Church started re-cataloguing its library in 1995 soon after discovering the heists by Heighes. This work is still in progress. Visitors are no longer allowed unsupervised access to the old books stored on an upper level, McMullin said.

Oxford's latest volley over the Vesalius has so far drawn a stony silence from Nakahara, which leaves Oxford and Christ Church in a quandary as to how to proceed.

"If Nippon Dental University were willing to return it, they could easily say, 'We made a mistake.' We could have a party, they could make a presentation of the book, and everyone would feel happy,'' Lewis says wistfully. Alas, that party seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

Anatomy of desire

De Humani Corporis Fabrica contains the most famous medical illustrations ever printed. Andreas Vesalius based his study of human anatomy on dissections of executed criminals.

The book disproved assumptions of the Greek physician Galen, who had been the authority on anatomy for more than a thousand years. Galen had been restricted on religious grounds to dissecting animals. He chose Barbary apes, which were considered to be closest to humans. Vesalius noted that humans and apes do not share the same anatomy.

The pocket edition of De Humani Corporis Fabrica was given to Christ Church College in 1733 as part of a bequest from Charles Boyle, the fourth Earl of Orrery, to his alma mater.

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