It cost a professional map thief just £50 to get virtually unsupervised access to the National Library of Wales’s priceless collection of antique atlases, a court was told yesterday.
Posing as a quietly spoken academic, Peter Bellwood handed the crisp new £50 note in at reception, claiming to have found it on the floor. If staff had any suspicions, Bellwood had allayed them. But it was a false sense of security.
Over the spring and summer of 2000, Bellwood, a 52-year-old former landscape gardener with a chronic addiction to gambling, returned time and again to steal at least 50 maps from the library.
Using the blade of a craft knife hidden up his sleeve, Bellwood cut pages from some of the rarest and most valuable atlases in the library’s collection, folded them and walked out with the maps stuffed down the back of his trousers.
His plundering earned him 4½ years in prison. But Swansea Crown Court was told that there is likely to be at least one other prolific map thief still at large. Bellwood insisted he had stolen no more than 50 maps from the library, yet when staff carried out an audit, they found that at least 105 were missing.
Bellwood, from Colchester in Essex, pleaded guilty to stealing maps from the library in Aberystwyth on six occasions.
The maps were sold through at least two dealers who subsequently claimed that they had no idea that the items had been stolen. Meanwhile, Bellwood spent every penny of the £70,000 that he was paid betting on horses “with pitiful success”.
His haul included pages from atlases produced by the 16th and 17th centuries’ finest mapmakers, including Mercator, John Speed, Blaeu and Jansson. Crieghton Harvey, for the prosecution, said that not only had Bellwood taken the maps, he had also ruined valuable atlases in the process.
Staff at the Welsh library recognised Bellwood when he was identified as the chief suspect in the theft of £100,000 worth of maps from the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Jesper Jorgensen, head of security, had become suspicious of Bellwood and replayed CCTV coverage of him studying maps. When the footage was slowed, Mr Jorgensen could see Bellwood slitting pages with a razor and hiding them in his vest.
Mr Jorgensen posted his photograph and details of his “crimes” on the library’s website and libraries across Europe began checking their stocks. The National Library of Wales ran a check of visitors and found Bellwood had signed in six times between the spring and August of 2000. Bellwood, by now on Scotland Yard’s “most wanted” list, gave himself up in July 2004 after seeing his photograph on the BBC programme Crimewatch UK.
Mr Harvey said that only 12 of the maps had been recovered. The court was told that Bellwood’s criminal career had begun in 1961. In 1988 he was convicted of breaking into an antiquarian bookshop and stealing volumes worth £1,250. In 1996 he was jailed for four years for using a razor blade to steal 97 rare Victorian sporting prints and maps of the Holy Land from books at the British Library. The haul was valued at £150,000.
Judge Christopher Morton was told an investigation to trace the proceeds had so far drawn a blank. The authorities in Denmark and the Netherlands are expected to ask the Home Office for permission to interview Bellwood in jail.