AN antique dealer charged with stealing a £3m first edition of Shakespeare's works missed court today because he was in hospital recovering from surgery.

Raymond Scott, 51, was due to be in Durham Crown Court but instead he was Hartlepool General Hospital.

Caroline Goodwin, defending, told Judge Christopher Prince: "He is presently in hospital having had an operation and I trust that your honour is satisfied this is a totally legitimate reason for him not being here today."

Mr Scott faces a total of six charges, including stealing the book and an alternative charge of handling stolen goods.

He also faces four other separate charges of theft and handling stolen goods relating to a driving licence, credit cards and a personal organiser found at an address in Ayton, Washington, Tyne and Wear, last summer.

No pleas were entered and in his absence Mr Scott, of Sandford Close, Wingate, County Durham, was released on conditional bail until his next court appearance in August.

He was originally arrested in June last year on suspicion of taking the 1623 folio in 1998 from Durham University.

The investigation began after a man walked into the world-renowned Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC with the 400-year-old book, claiming to have discovered it in Cuba, and asked for it to be verified as genuine.

Experts soon suspected the book was stolen and called in the British Embassy, Durham Police and the FBI.

The authorities set about tracing the man who took the folio to the library, and who told staff he was an international businessman.

It led to the arrest of the eccentric playboy who then lived with his 80-year-old mother in a quiet cul-de-sac in Washington, Tyne and Wear.