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.
Great Scott! Eccentric Shakespearean Thief Convicted.
Scott and Cuban girlfriend Heidy Rios.
If the Cuban dancer was the cause of Scott's decision to sell the stolen Shakespeare, she would also become his attempted cover. Scott proclaimed that the copy had come from her family, or that of a friend. It had been in Cuba for a century or more, and since the Castros would not let her take it out of the country for authentication, he volunteered to perform the task. And that is why, he explained, he showed up at the Folger with this First Folio in hand.
Through many hearings, Scott questioned the judgment of the experts who identified this copy as being the Durham one. However, by trial time, the identification was virtually indisputable, so Scott, or his attorney, took a different tack. In this explanation, his copy was the stolen Durham, but Scott was a sucker being played by the Cubans to pawn off their stolen book. How the Cubans managed to get to a library thousands of miles away, though just a stone's throw from Scott's house, was a mystery unexplained.
Scott's trial began in June, and the prosecution's announcement that it would take three weeks was not a good omen for Scott. It takes a lot of evidence to fill three weeks. All of the expected evidence came out, along with some unexpected, and devastating information about Scott. Most notably, the prosecution revealed that Scott had been convicted a dozen times on various petty thefts, essentially shoplifting, going back to the early 1990s. He had even been convicted twice while awaiting trial on the Shakespeare charges, once for stealing a couple of books, no less, from a bookstore (they were worth about $100). Indeed, his history seems to be one of a petty thief, and not terribly good at it. The heist of the Shakespeare appears out of character for Scott, though oddly enough, he was acquitted of that charge. Technically, Scott is not a book thief. He was convicted on two other counts: handling stolen goods and removing stolen property from the country.
As to how Scott managed to live his high lifestyle on a carer's allowance and petty theft, it appears that he was good at racking up debt. He found ways to run up huge amounts of credit card and other debt. However, one can only pull this off for so long, and his attempt to maintain the playboy façade forced him into making the risky move that brought him down.
At trial, Scott's attorney attempted to paint him as "an old fool." He was simply a "mummy's boy" out of his depth, taken advantage of by a sophisticated Cuban lady. Undoubtedly he was, but not in the way his attorney tried to argue. Reportedly, Scott didn't much appreciate this line of defense, but few alternatives presented themselves. Finally, Scott pulled one last dramatic move, a head scratcher that must have left his poor attorney dazed. Late in the trial, Scott walked into the local police station and presented them with two stolen works of art and a stolen dictionary. What he hoped to achieve, other than one last splash in the newspapers, is hard to fathom. He indicated to a reporter that he was employing an element of surprise, but if he had stood up in court and proclaimed his guilt, this too would have been surprising, though hardly helpful. Perhaps Scott was already thinking beyond the verdict and hoping to reduce his sentence.
Though Scott had long had explanations for the press, when it came time to testify in court, he declined. There was nothing for him to say, or at least nothing the prosecution wouldn't tear to shreds. In America, a defendant can decline to testify at his trial, and jurors are not allowed to draw any inferences. Not so in the U.K. The prosecutor was allowed to jump on this point, asking the jury why would someone supposedly so misunderstood, fail to explain himself to the jury? Undoubtedly, the jury wondered too. His attorney was reduced to arguing that yes, Scott was a crook, but there was a possibility that he wasn't the crook in this case, so he should be acquitted. That's a weak argument and the jury wasn't buying. Conviction came swiftly, and the trial judge announced that Scott could expect a "substantial custodial sentence."
Scott's attorney had most things about his client right, except the one about his innocence. However, he missed on one other point. He described Scott as a "Walter Mitty," James Thurber's classic character who imagines he is all types of superheroes from the midst of his humdrum existence. Scott was no Walter Mitty. He didn't imagine the good life. He actually lived it for many years, despite a lack of money or notable skills at stealing. He had the fast car, fine wines, expensive clothes, international travel, and beautiful female companions. But for his dishonesty, his life would have always been that of a poor caregiver, living a lonely life in a small house with his aged mother. One can only wonder whether, as he spends his days in jail, he will regret his actions, or believe they were worth the cost.