Two “stolen” Charles Darwin manuscripts have been anonymously returned to a university library after going missing more than 20 years ago.
The leather-bound notebooks, which were wrapped together in clingfilm, were left in a pink gift bag on the floor at Cambridge University Library, with a typed note wishing the librarian a “happy Easter”.
They were first found to be missing from the library in 2001 after a routine check discovered that the small blue box containing the scientist’s work had not been returned to its proper place.
Staff initially believed the books had been classified incorrectly and extensive searches of the building, which is home to around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other items, were carried out.
It was not until October 2020 that they were reported as stolen to Cambridgeshire Police and the force alerted Interpol.
Almost 18 months later, the books – one of which contains Darwin’s famous 1837 Tree of Life sketch – have been returned in good condition and with no obvious signs of damage.
Dr Jessica Gardner, who became director of library services in 2017 and who reported the notebooks as stolen, described her joy at their return as “immense”.
“My sense of relief at the notebooks’ safe return is profound and almost impossible to adequately express,” she said.
“I, along with so many others, all across the world, was heartbroken to learn of their loss and my joy at their return is immense.
Cambridge college returning looted bronze cockerel to Nigeria
“The sole aim of our public appeal was to have the manuscripts safely returned to our safekeeping and I am delighted to have had such a successful outcome in such a relatively short space of time.”
‘It really is a mystery’
Although there is no CCTV of the area where the manuscripts were returned, Dr Gardner said, entrances and exits to the building are covered and available footage has been handed to police.
For the first time ever, Oxford and Cambridge miss out on top spot in rankings
“It really is a mystery,” she added. “We don’t know how and we don’t know who.”
Cambridgeshire Police said its investigation remains open and it is following up some lines of enquiry.
Since the notebooks disappeared, the library has implemented card-and-pin access to secure areas, hired a dedicated onsite security team and put additional CCTV in place.
The books will now be stored as part of the Darwin Archive, alongside the works of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.
In July, the public will be able to view the manuscripts as part of the Darwin in Conservation exhibition at the library.