Rare Book Monthly

Articles - January - 2021 Issue

Twenty Years After They Went Missing, Cambridge University Library Concludes Its Darwin Notebooks Were Stolen


Darwin's Tree of Life (from Cambridge University Libraries website).

Two decades after they disappeared, the Cambridge University Library has concluded that two missing Charles Darwin notebooks have been stolen. That seems like a long time, but for the past 20 years the library has believed the notebooks were misplaced. If that sounds improbable, the Cambridge Special Collections rooms have millions of documents in countless boxes, occupying 28 miles of shelving. The entire library contains 130 miles of shelves. It's not that hard to imagine why librarians thought they were misfiled despite an inability to find them.


The missing notebooks were created by Darwin not long after his return home from his voyage on the ship the Beagle. That ship had spent much time surveying around the southern part of South America. Darwin was the ship's naturalist. He noted similarities yet differences between species in different areas and wondered how this happened. It would be the starting point for the development of his revolutionary theory of evolution.


Back home in 1837, Darwin wrote some of his thoughts in these notebooks. They are now known as the Transmutation Notebooks as Darwin began to theorize how one species could transmute to another. One of these notebooks contains his famous Tree of Life sketch, where he connects variant species to common ancestors. Darwin believed that as new species developed, older ones would be doomed to extinction, explaining why there are fossils of extinct plants and animals that are similar to living ones. In the months following, Darwin developed his theory of how some variants in species would be better adapted to their environment and would outcompete their ancestors, thus leading to the latter's extinction. Survival of the fittest.


By the early 1840s, Darwin had mostly figured out how species evolved, but he sat on it for years because he understood how controversial it would be. Most people believed new species were separate creations of God, and many would consider Darwin's theory to be sacrilege. It was only when Alfred Russel Wallace independently reached a similar conclusion about evolution that Darwin revealed his theory, the two publishing a joint paper in 1858.


The last known whereabouts of Darwin's notebooks goes all the way back to the summer of 2000. They were removed from the Special Collections strong room for photography. During a routine check in January 2001, it was discovered that the small box (size of a paperback book) containing the notebooks was missing from its proper location. That led to a search, and many others over the past 20 years, none of which was able to locate the notebooks. Librarians believed they were misshelved in the vast storerooms of the library, containing around 10 million items. They were never found.


At the beginning of 2020, Director of Library Services Dr. Jessica Gardner organized a new search. Various specialist staff were assigned to search different areas of the library, while a thorough search was conducted of the large Darwin collection. Again, nothing was found. In consultation with experts in the field of theft of cultural artifacts, the library has concluded that the most likely explanation is theft. Dr. Gardner noted that security 20 years ago was not the same as it is today. Something of this importance missing would be recognized immediately, and there is surveillance and other security measures in place today that did not exist back then.


This does not mean that the library has given up all hope that the notebooks are still somewhere in the library. Searches will continue, and it is estimated that a complete search will take another five years. Nonetheless, they will move forward under the belief that theft is the most likely explanation. Local law enforcement and Interpol have been notified. The missing notebooks have been entered in databases of missing items and the ABA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association) has been called on to keep their eyes open for someone attempting to sell them. The library is also calling on all private individuals who may know something about the notebooks, about how they disappeared 20 years ago or where they are today, to contact the Cambridge University Library or law enforcement.


If the Darwin notebooks were stolen, the question is who and why. Their value would be immense. The library said, “Given their unique nature, the value of the notebooks is difficult to estimate, but would probably run into millions of pounds.” We would only add to that “many” millions of pounds. However, their uniqueness and enormous importance makes them essentially unsaleable. Whoever might possess the notebooks would have to always be quiet about them, tell no one, never share with anyone that they have these notebooks. There will also be the fear that at some point someone will discover they have them and the penalty will be great. What is the point of stealing the notebooks for this?

Posted On: 2021-01-14 18:17
User Name: mbook

The other problem is, if along the line someone keeps them until they die. They could be sold at auction with other books with no one knowing they are actually by Darwin. Even 10 years ago, many dealers would throw them away or give them away as they do not deal in or understand it. Apart from not believing it could possibly be genuine. I have a 17th cent Priests? Manuscript of his Sermons c1658-1675 with no author. So is hard to price/list for sale, so have no idea if it could be a famous person.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b> Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b><center>Neal Auction Company<br>Spring Estates 2021<br>April 16-18</b>
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Lyscosthenes, Conrad. <i>Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon,</i> Basilea: Henricus Petrus, c. 1557, first edition, folio. $5,000 to $7,000.
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Collection of Ethiopic Religious Texts, in Ge'ez , illuminated manuscripts on vellum, c. 1700-20th c. (5 pcs.) $5,000 to $7,000.
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Augustinus, Aurelius Sanctus.<br><i>De Civitate Dei,</i> Venice: Bonetus Locatellus per Octavianus Scotus, 9 Febbraio, 1486, 4to. $5,000 to $7,000.
    <b><center>Neal Auction Company<br>Spring Estates 2021<br>April 16-18</b>
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Choiseul-Gouffier, Marie Gabriel Comte de. <i>Voyage Pittoresque de la Grece,</i> Paris, J.J. Blaise, 1782-1809-1822, first edition. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Rufinus, Tyrannius (c. 345-411). <i>Expositio in symbolum apostolorum,</i> [Cologne, Ulrich Zel, c. 1472], first edition. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Magnus, Albertus. <i>Summa de eucharistiae sacramento,</i> Ulm: Johann Zainer, 1474. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b><center>Neal Auction Company<br>Spring Estates 2021<br>April 16-18</b>
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Strabo. <i>Rerum geographicarum libri septemdecim. A Guilielmo Xylandro Augstano magna cura recogniti…,</i> Basel, Henricpetri, (August 1571). $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Riou, Stephen (1720-1780). <i>The Grecian Orders of Architecture. Delineated and Explained from the Antiquities of Athens,</i> London, 1768. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Mair, Paul Hektor. <i>Geschlechter Buch...der...Statt Augspurg,</i> Frankfurt am Maim, Sigmund Feyerabend, 1580. $1,800 to $2,500.
    <b><center>Neal Auction Company<br>Spring Estates 2021<br>April 16-18</b>
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Polybius (c. 200-118 B.C.). <i>Historiarum libri priores quinque,</i> Basel: Johann Herwagen, 1549. $1,200 to $1,800.
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> Bellori, Giovanni Pietro. <i>Columna Antoniniana Marci Aurelii Antonini Augusti rebus gestis insignis Germanis simul...,</i> Rome, [1672]. $1,000 to $1,500.
    <b>Neal Auction Co., Apr. 16:</b> <i>Ecclesiasticae Historiae, Eusebii Pamphili...Eiusdem de vita Constantini...Socratis...,</i> Paris, Robert Estienne, 1544. $800 to $1,200.
  • <center><b>Gonnelli Auction House<br>Books and Graphics<br>19th, 20th and 21st April 2021</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br>Atlases and Maps</b
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br> Veneto and Venice, a Selection of Books from the XVI to XX century</b>
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 20<br></b>Rossini Gioachino, Baguette de chef d'orchestre appartenuta a Gioachino Rossini, dono del Comune di Passy. 1500 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Manetti Saverio, Storia naturale degli uccelli trattata con metodo. Cinque volumi. 1767. 18.000 €
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 21<br></b>Poe Edgar Allan, Double assassinat dans la rue morgue. Illustrations de Cura. 1946.
    <b><center>Gonnelli: Apr. 19-21<br>Books from XVI to XX Century</b>

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions