An international police investigation has been launched after two notebooks belonging to naturalist Charles Darwin were reported stolen - two decades after they went missing.For 20 years, staff at Cambridge University Library believed these precious items had simply been “mis-shelved” within the vast archives.
But after many fruitless searches the manuscripts were finally reported stolen to Cambridgeshire Police on October 20 this year. The force have since launched an investigation and notified Interpol.
The notebooks, which include Darwin’s seminal 1837 Tree of Life sketch, are likely to be worth many millions of pounds, the library said.
The two books were removed from storage to the library’s photographic unit in 2000 where the work was recorded as completed in November later that year..
During a routine check in January 2001 staff noticed that the small blue box containing the notebooks had not been returned to its proper place.
Dr Jessica Gardner, university librarian and director of library services since 2017, said she is "heartbroken" at the loss: “My predecessors genuinely believed that what had happened was that these had been mis-shelved or misfiled and they took forward extensive searches over the years in that genuine belief."
There have been continuous searches since the notebooks went missing, she said, and it is now thought “likely that theft occurred”.
Dr Gardner said that security policy was different 20 years ago, adding: “Today any such significant missing object would be reported as a potential theft immediately and a widespread search begun.”
She added: “We’ve devoted the whole of our careers to the preservation of cultural heritage and we’re devastated by what has happened.”
Dr Gardner reported the matter to police.
An appeal for information has been launched on the advice of external experts, including at the Metropolitan Police’s arts and antique specialist crime unit, Dr Gardner said.
She said there are currently no leads.
Dr Mark Purcell, deputy director of Research Collections, said he is confident the manuscripts could not be sold on the open market and it is possible they have “gone to ground”.
Cambridge University Library has more than 210km (130 miles) of shelving and is home to around 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other objects.
The two Darwin notebooks had previously been digitised and their content is available online.
Anyone who may have information about the missing notebooks is asked to contact Cambridge University Library via email at ManuscriptAppeal@lib.cam.ac.uk.