A group of Romanian nationals stored 170 rare books worth more than £1.3 million in a Tooting warehouse, a court heard.

The haul, including first editions of Galileo and Isaac Newton, were stolen by raiders who drilled holes through skylights and abseiled 40ft into a warehouse to bypass a complex security system, the court was told.

The men are said to have smuggled rare books to Romania via the Eurotunnel with the intent to be sold on the black market.

An additional minimum of £1.5 million worth of high-value electronics and cash were also stolen across 12 “highly organised” burglaries committed between December 2016 and April 2019.

Seven Romanian nationals accused of conspiring to burglary and one man who is said to have acted as a “fence” to conceal the group’s illegal products appeared on trial at Kingston Crown Court to face the charges.

Gavril Popinciuc, Vasille Paragina, Marian Albu, Traian Mihulca, Marian Mamaliga, Ilie Ungureanu, Liviu Leahu deny conspiracy to commit burglaries and conspiracy to disguise and remove criminal property.

Mohammed Enus, the accused “fence”, denies conspiracy to disguise and remove criminal property and handling stolen goods.

Victor Opariuc, Narcis Popescu and Daniel David all pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit burglary last week and will be sentenced in June.

Prosecutor Catherine Farrelly said one heist saw the criminal network target a warehouse in Feltham in January 2017 that held a large number of culturally significant books that were prepared to be delivered to a book fair in the United States.

She said: “Frontier Forwarding Warehouse is a large customs clearance agent and international freight forwarding company.

"It was the victim of a burglary which took place during late on 29th through to early on 30th January 2017.

"At that time, the warehouse was holding a number of culturally significant books including works from Sir Isaac Newton, the eighteenth-century Spanish painter Frnacisco Goya and relating to the Italian astronomer, Galileo.

"These books had been shipped from Italy and Germany and were being stored in preparation for onward delivery to a book fair in the United States.

"The books belonged to three separate book dealers. Two of the book dealers were Italian.

“The third book collector was from Berlin in Germany.

“The books had an insurance value of something in the region of £1.3 million and their cultural significance was immense.”

Two days before the burglary on 27 January, Popescu, Opariuc and David travelled from Romania to London Luton airport and then went to the warehouse in a blue Renault Megane which was captured by CCTV.

Ms Farrelly said: “Daniel David and Victor Opariuc then left the vehicle and approached the warehouse.

“They cut holes into the perimeter fence gaining access to the vicinity of the warehouse.

“Holes were then cut into skylights situated in the warehouse roof.

“It appears that they then lowered themselves from the skylights onto the shelving inside the warehouse.

“This enabled them to avoid activating the warehouses’ sensor-based alarms that were situated by the doors.

“David and Opariuc were then in the warehouse for a total of five hours fifteen minutes, and so, until around 2:15 hours, in that time they stole a total of 170 books.

“They loaded those books into 16 holdalls bearing the logo Baker Hughes. These holdalls were part of a separate consignment that were also stolen from within the warehouse.

“David and Opariuc exited the warehouse via the holes in the skylights.”

The prosecutor said the burglars were in contact with Popinciuc and Mamaliga, who were in Romania at the time.

CCTV shows the Megane carrying the 16 holdalls containing the stolen books moving away from the warehouse at 2.15am and into an unknown address in Tooting, she said.

Ungureanu, the prosecutor says, then flew from Germany on 1 February 2017 to assist in the removal of the books out of Britain to Romania.

The following day, Popescu booked and paid for a house in Balham for four adults for five nights where the books were moved.

Ms Farrelly said two days later van driver Mamaliga entered the UK via the Eurotunnel and he was in continuous communication with the group.

She said: “Telephone cell site evidence shows that on 5 February Mamaliga and Ungureanu left the UK together in Mamaliga’s van. They travelled from Balham in South London to Dover and left through the Eurotunnel in Folkestone.

“The prosecution’s case is that they had come to collect the books and then left with them in Mamaliga’s van.”

Forensic examination of the warehouse was conducted and a bent metal bar, a ladder rung from an escape ladder, was seized, swabbed and later found to be a DNA match for David, the prosecutor said.

Ms Farrelly added: “The Megane was found a short time later, abandoned near Garratt Lane in Tooting.

“It was noted that there was a strong smell of cleaning fluid present inside the vehicle.

“The vehicle was forensically examined and a full DNA profile was obtained from the driver’s headrest.

“This profile was shared with the Romanian authorities and it has been confirmed that Narcis Popescu’s DNA is a match.”

The prosecutor also outlined several other burglaries, with many successful attempts raiding hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of electronics.

She said in July 2017, six months after the book raid, the group became “too confident” and targeted computer company XMA three times, who have warehouses in St Alban’s and Nottingham.

Ms Farrelly said: “The first occasion was when, yet again, the defendants targeted the roof.

“Ladders and ropes were used to scale the side of the warehouse and then holes were cut into the roof with entry being gained via this point.

“Ladders were then used by those committing the burglary to lower themselves onto the racking inside.

“Yet again, this mode of entry enabled them to avoid the security system motion sensors.

“Around £150,000 worth of Lenovo laptops were stolen. They were packed into large plastic woven bags and then the burglars left, with most of the laptops, through the roof.

“The burglars left behind a number of the laptops, the ladders that they had used to gain entrance as well as a balaclava/snood and a black bin liner.”

The prosecutor said the snood was examined and found a DNA match with Paragina.

She also said van driver Mamaliga, similar to the book raid, entered the UK by ferry services on the day of the burglary to come and collect the goods.

The prosecutor added: “Marian Mamaliga had the misfortune of being stopped in his van by Romanian police. They searched his van found inside 30 laptops which had been stolen by XMA on 1 July.

“The Romanian officers asked Mamaliga for proof of purchase of the laptops and he duly provided an image of an invoice sent to his phone.

“That image was an invoice from Mohammed Enus’ company Essential Phones Limited.

“Mohammed Enus’ company appears to have provided an invoice that was in the possession of Mamaliga.

“The Romanian police took an image of this invoice and seized the laptops as there was insufficient paperwork to prove where the laptops had come from.”

Popeanu and Albu were arrested in Harrow on 25 June, and on the same date Popinciuc, David, Opariuc, Mamaliga were arrested in Romania. Popsecu was arrested the following day in Romania.

Enus, who was arrested at his home in Harrow, also had a laptop computer embossed with the Manchester Metropolitan University logo that was stolen from a company called Getech Ltd, Kingston Crown Court heard.

Ms Farrelly said: “What were these first seven defendants, all Romanian, planning to do with hundreds of smartphones, laptop computers and antique books of cultural significance written in foreign languages that were stolen?

“If there was no plan for them to be taken to Romania (thus removing them from the UK) or to them onwards to buyers, both of which would make them guilty of count two, were they going to hide them somewhere here?

“Was it really their intention that they would occasionally return to the UK, to their cache of stolen criminal property and then make the odd call or send an email from time to time from one of their personal stock of hundreds of phones or laptops?

“Were they going to pop back to the UK, hungry for a spot of learning and have a dip into Sir Isaac Newton’s 17th century work “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy” or spend some time appreciating the Spanish painter Francisco Goya’s genius by flicking through some of his 19th century etchings?

“The prosecution says that the sole purpose of conducting these burglaries was so that every person involved would profit from them and it is a matter of pure common sense as to how that would happen: the criminal property would be sold onwards and the burglars would split the proceeds.

“Mohammed Enus alone is also charged with count three which alleges that he dishonestly in possession of a laptop stolen which he knew to be stolen property. The laptop was clearly marked as being the property of Manchester Metropolitan University.

“As far as the prosecution is aware, Mohammed Enus has no legitimate connection with that institution.”

The seven defendants Popinciuc, Paragina, Albu, Mihulca, Mamaliga, Ungureanu, Leahu and Enus, who sat in court quietly listening to the Romanian interpreter, deny the charges.

The trial, scheduled to last 18 weeks, continues.