Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2010 Issue

Great Scott! Eccentric Shakespearean Thief Convicted.


Scott and his

By Michael Stillman

The career of one of the most entertaining of book thieves to be seen in recent memory came crashing to a halt in an English courtroom last month. Actually, the case of the colorful self-styled bookseller ended more with a whimper, a case that looked bad at the start becoming little more than a foregone conclusion by the end. Raymond Scott is off to prison, leaving behind a vignette of eccentric public appearances and one badly damaged Shakespeare First Folio that belonged to someone else.

Raymond Scott's life was a tragicomedy worthy of Shakespeare. He would have made a great Shakespearean character, part fool, part thief, and part actor. He managed to both live the good life and lampoon it, and along the way developed an audience who followed his downfall, and may someday read the book that will apparently be written about him.

Scott burst into the public consciousness in 2008 when he walked into the Folger Library in Washington, D.C., with a supposedly unknown copy of the Shakespeare First Folio. First Folios aren't particularly rare, there being some 250 copies known to have survived. However, they are still very valuable as it is the quintessential piece of western literature. It was published in 1623, after Shakespeare's death, by some of his acquaintances and admirers to preserve his works. It is of enormous importance as many of his plays, including Macbeth, Julius Caeser, The Taming of the Shrew, and many others survive only because they were printed in this edition.

Scott said he wished to have his copy authenticated, though in hindsight we know that he knew quite well it was authentic. He undoubtedly was looking for a buyer, and the Folger, which already possesses an amazing 79 copies, would be a logical bidder. This copy, despite some notable flaws inflicted by Scott to disguise its provenance, is still worth something in the $1-$2 million area.

Scott got his authentication from the Folger, but he also got more than he bargained for. Though he ripped out several pages that could have identified it as the copy stolen from England's Durham University Library a decade earlier, there were still other indicia which could identify it remaining. The most notable were a few handwritten notes that appeared in the Durham copy and the copy Scott brought to the Folger.

Back in the Washington that is located in the U.K., Scott lived a life both obscure and flamboyant. He shared a small home with his aged mother about a dozen miles from the Durham Library from which the First Folio disappeared in 1998. He had no visible means of support other than a small carer's allowance, a stipend of around $100 a week provided by the government to people who care for someone who needs assistance. Scott cared for his mother. Nonetheless, Scott displayed a few signs of wealth hard to explain for someone of such small income from a family of limited means. He liked fine wine and liquor, wore stylish clothes, often traveled, and most conspicuously, drove around in a Ferrari. It's hard to afford a Ferrari on a carer's allowance.

Once the Folger identified his First Folio as the copy belonging to Durham, charges were filed against Scott. It was now that the obscurely flamboyant image Scott had developed among his neighbors became a national and international phenomenon. He came to his hearings in the most stylish, or outlandish of costumes. Once he arrived in a horse-drawn carriage with a lovely young "assistant" by his side. Other times he came in a limousine stocked with a fine bar. He would often wear expensive clothing, though at one point he came dressed as Che Guevara. Presumably, this was to buttress his Cuban explanation for having a First Folio. Another time he wore a kilt in honor of his Scottish heritage.

Part of the high life this obscure carer was living involved trips to Cuba. There, in this modern day worker's paradise, the non-working working-class Scott met and fell in love with a Cuban dancer. She was 30 years the junior of the 53-year-old Scott, and probably not a good Communist, as it seems likely she was drawn to him more by his claims of wealth and international playboy status than by his revolutionary zeal. Her needs were apparently greater than his resources, which led to his fatal decision to attempt to pawn the Shakespeare.

Rare Book Monthly

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