Guglielmo Libri, an Italian count and mathematician who served as secretary of the Committee for the General Catalog of Manuscripts in French Public Libraries, learned that he might be arrested and fled to London in 1848. He managed to bring along a purloined collection of 30,000 books and manuscripts, including works by Descartes, Galileo, Fermat, Leibniz, Copernicus and Kepler.
France has recovered only 45 of the 72 stolen René Descartes letters.
One was offered at an auction in Switzerland in 2006 and 2009.
After I protested vociferously and publicly on both occasions in the name of the Institut, the letter didn’t find a buyer,but it proved impossible for us to raise the very large sum that the seller demanded, and even though it can’t be sold, this 1638 letter remains in private hands, reports Gabriel de Broglie, chancellor of the Institut de France.
Erik-Jan Bos, a philosophy scholar at Utrecht University in the Netherlands is helping to edit a new edition of Descartes’s correspondence. During a late night session of Internet browsing, he noticed a reference to Descartes in a description of the manuscript collection at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. He contacted John Anderies, the head of special collections at Haverford, who sent him a scan of the letter, dated May 27, 1641.
It turns out the letter had been donated in 1902 to Haverford’s library by Lucy Branson Roberts, whose husband, Charles Roberts, was an avid autograph collector. He had bought the letter without knowing that it was stolen.
As soon as Haverford’s president, Stephen G. Emerson, understood the letter’s history, he contacted the Institut de France coincidentally on February 11, the anniversary of Descartes’ death in 1650 and offered to return the item.
I was frankly shocked because I didn’t know we had the letter at all but it’s really not ours, said Emerson.
Delighted by the college’s offer, Mr. de Broglie awarded Haverford a prize of $20,000, writing to Mr. Emerson that the offer honors you and exemplifies the depth of moral values that you instill in your students.
We couldn’t be more pleased with how this has been resolved, concludes Emerson. In our ever-shrinking world, when strangers become friends and then partners at the click of a mouse, we want to do all we can to show, by example, what it means for scholars and citizens to collaborate for the common good.