The plot was worthy of a Dan Brown thriller – two Charles Darwin manuscripts worth millions of pounds have been reported stolen from a Cambridge University library after being missing for two decades.
The disappearance prompted a global appeal with the help of local police and Interpol. Now, in a strange twist, notebooks – including one of Darwin’s seminal 1837 Tree of Life sketches – are returned anonymously in a pink gift bag, with a typed note on an envelope wishing the librarian a Happy Easter.
The bag was dropped off on March 9 on the fourth floor of a 17-story building on the floor of a public area of the library outside the librarian’s office, in an area not covered by CCTV. Who left them and where they were remains a mystery.
Dr. Jessica Gardner, who became director of the library service in 2017 and who reported to police that notebooks had been stolen, described her joy at their return as “unpleasant.” “It’s almost impossible to express my deepest and adequate sense of relief at the safe return of the notebook,” he said. “I am devastated to learn of their loss, along with many others around the world.
“Notebooks can now be restored to their proper place in Cambridge, along with the rest of the Darwin Archives, at the center of the country’s cultural and scientific heritage, with the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.”
It was not until 2001 that notebooks, representing some of the first indications of Darwin’s radical theory of evolution through natural selection, were essentially missing. They were removed from storage for photography, and the work was recorded as complete in November 2000. But a subsequent routine check in January 2001 found that they had not been returned. Workers at the time believed they had been mistakenly placed.
Fingerprint searches of key library locations, containing about 10 million books, maps, manuscripts, and other items, did not prove fruitful, and books were finally reported stolen at Cambridge Constabulary in 2020.
Police then launched an investigation and informed Interpol, the university made a worldwide request for information. Their return after almost a year and a half has shocked and delighted the authorities.
Professor Stephen J. Toop, vice-chancellor of Cambridge University, said he was “incredibly happy to hear that notebooks have returned safely to their rightful home.” “Objects like these are important for our understanding of the history of mankind, not just the history of science,” he said.
The manuscripts were said to be in good condition and there were no obvious signs of significant handling or loss in the years since their disappearance. They were wrapped together with clingfilm inside their archive box. A plain brown envelope had the message “Librarian / Happy Easter / X” printed on it.
Dr Mark Parcel, deputy director of the library’s research collection, had earlier said he was sure the manuscripts would not be sold on the open market and expected similar results at London’s Lambeth Palace, where items were stolen after the second bombing. World War II.
“More than forty years later, literally as a result of the death crisis of conscience, those items were made public and returned to Lambeth,” he said.
Although there was no CCTV in the area where the manuscripts were returned, Gardner said the building’s entrances and exits were covered, as were targeted areas such as the Strongroom and Specialist Reading Room. He said the available footage had been handed over to police, adding: “It’s really a mystery. We don’t know how and we don’t know who.”
Gardner said the library building has “significantly changed” since then, with card-and-PIN access to secure areas, an onsite security team, high-security strongroom and additional CCTV. More reviews were to come, he added.
The notebooks will go on public display from July as part of the library’s Darwin Inn Conversation Exhibition.
A Cambridgeshire Constabulary spokesman said: “Our investigation is open and we are following some lines of inquiry. We are renewing our application for anyone with information about the case to contact us. ”