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Cambridge University Library appeals for help in finding ‘stolen’ Charles Darwin notebooks worth millions





Cambridge University Library has announced a public appeal for help in locating two missing notebooks, one of which contains Charles Darwin’s iconic 1837 ‘Tree of Life’ sketch.

An 1869 portrait of Charles Darwin
An 1869 portrait of Charles Darwin

Following an exhaustive search - the largest in the library’s history - curators have concluded the notebooks, first listed as missing in January 2001, have likely been stolen.

Cambridgeshire Police have been informed and their disappearance recorded on the national Art Loss Register for missing cultural artefacts. The police have also added the missing notebooks to Interpol’s database of stolen artworks - Psyche.

Cambridge University Library has also taken advice from external national experts in security and cultural asset recovery to help in the search, and will work alongside other partners in the book trade, including the Antiquarian Book Association.

The appeal launches today (November 24) - a day commonly known as ‘Evolution Day’, which recognises the anniversary of the famed naturalist's publication of On the Origin of Species on November 24, 1859.

Darwin's 'Tree of Life' sketch from one of his missing notebooks. Picture: Cambridge University Library
Darwin's 'Tree of Life' sketch from one of his missing notebooks. Picture: Cambridge University Library

Dr Jessica Gardner, University librarian and director of library services since 2017, said: “I am heartbroken that the location of these Darwin notebooks, including Darwin’s iconic ‘Tree of Life’ drawing, is currently unknown - but we’re determined to do everything possible to discover what happened and will leave no stone unturned during this process.

“This public appeal could be critical in seeing the notebooks safely return, for the benefit of all, and I would ask anyone who thinks they may be able to help to get in touch.

“We would be hugely grateful to hear from any staff, past or present, members of the book trade, researchers, or the public at large, with information that might assist in the recovery of the notebooks."

Dr Gardner added: "Someone, somewhere may have knowledge or insight that can help us return these notebooks to their proper place at the heart of the UK’s cultural and scientific heritage.”

Appeal to help find missing Charles Darwin notebooks from Cambridge University Library
Appeal to help find missing Charles Darwin notebooks from Cambridge University Library

Given their unique nature, the value of the notebooks is difficult to estimate, but would probably run into millions of pounds.

For many years, previous university librarians believed that the notebooks had been misplaced in the vast storerooms and collections of Cambridge University Library - which is home to around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other objects.

Despite a number of searches over the intervening years, they remained undiscovered.

An example of an identical box and notebooks from the Darwin Archive at the Cambridge University Library. Picture: Cambridge University Library
An example of an identical box and notebooks from the Darwin Archive at the Cambridge University Library. Picture: Cambridge University Library

Professor Stephen J Toope, vice-chancellor of the University, said: “Cambridge University Library is one of the world’s great libraries and home to globally important collections, assembled and cared for over six centuries, and encompassing thousands of years of human thought and discovery.

“As a result of this appeal for help, we hope to locate the missing Darwin notebooks and restore them to their rightful place alongside the University Library’s other treasures, making them available to scholars and researchers in the centuries to come.”

Detective Sergeant Sharon Burrell, of Cambridgeshire Police, said: “We are appealing for anyone with any knowledge of the whereabouts of these priceless artefacts to contact us. They are extremely valuable and important to the university and anyone interested in the history of science.

“I hope the publicity surrounding their potential theft jogs someone’s memory and leads to information coming to light that results in their return. Due to the time since their disappearance, information from the public will be very important to this investigation.

“We have made initial inquiries to trace their whereabouts, including contacting Interpol to place the items on their Stolen Works of Arts Register.”

Charles Darwin
Charles Darwin

Anyone who may have information about the missing notebooks is asked to contact Cambridge University Library via email at ManuscriptAppeal@lib.cam.ac.uk, anonymously if they wish, or Cambridgeshire Police via web-chat, on 101 quoting crime reference number 35/71468/20 - or by visiting cambs.police.uk/report.

Alternatively, contact Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555111 or via crimestoppers-uk.org.



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