A suspected thief who allegedly sold rare books insured by Ecclesiastical Insurance has skipped bail and is believed to be in New Zealand.

Earlier this year Ecclesiastical paid out almost £23,000 to the Royal Academy of Dancing to cover the loss of 21 books, one of which dated back to 1549.

Following the discovery of the theft of the books in 1997, a man was arrested and went to court in December 1999.

However, he did not appear at his second court date and is believed to have returned to New Zealand.

An Ecclesiastical spokesman said the man had been found with one book in his possession, although he had no known connection with the academy.

The books had been donated to the academy by Philip Richardson OBE in the 1920s and last appeared during an academy audit in 1995. It was not known how or when the books came into the man's possession.

The other books were in varous places around the world, the spokesman said, and the search involved the New York Police Department, the gendarmerie and the FBI.

"The police worked quickly to trace the books and two were found to be in the hands of a London pawnbroker, one was with a book dealer in Paris and another 15 were in New York," he said.

Loss adjusters Mclarens Toplis worked with its Paris and New York offices to ensure the books were not sold on, while negotiating with the police in each country to ascertain the academy's legal rights to the return of the books.

All except one were eventually returned.