‘Stolen’ Charles Darwin manuscripts mysteriously returned to Cambridge University Library

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Two Charles Darwin manuscripts at the centre of an Interpol search after being reported stolen from Cambridge University Library have been anonymously returned - in a pink gift bag with a Happy Easter note.

The items were found to be missing in 2001, but at the time staff believed they may have been mis-shelved, and carried out searches among the library's 10 million books, maps, manuscripts and other items.

In October 2020 they were reported as stolen to Cambridgeshire Police, which launched an investigation and notified Interpol, with the university making a worldwide appeal for information.

Almost 18 months later, the notebooks – one of which contains Darwin’s famous 1837 Tree of Life sketch – have been anonymously returned.

They were left on the floor of a public area of the library outside the librarian’s office, on the fourth floor of the 17-storey building, on 9 March - with a typed note wishing a Happy Easter to the librarian.

The area is not covered by CCTV.

The two Darwin manuscripts have been anonymously returned to Cambridge University Library Credit: Cambridge University Library/PA

The manuscripts were said to be in good condition and with no obvious signs of significant handling or damage sustained in the years since their disappearance.

The two notebooks were wrapped together with clingfilm inside their archive box.

A plain brown envelope with them had the printed message “Librarian/ Happy Easter/ X”.

The police investigation into the notebooks’ disappearance and subsequent return is continuing.

The Charles Darwin manuscripts were returned in a pink gift bag Credit: Cambridge University Library/PA

Dr Jessica Gardner, who became director of library services in 2017 and who reported the notebooks as stolen to police, 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.

“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.

The precious notebooks were found to be missing in 2001 but were not reported as stolen until 2020 Credit: Cambridge University Library/PA

“The notebooks can now retake their rightful place alongside the rest of the Darwin Archive at Cambridge, at the heart of the nation’s cultural and scientific heritage, alongside the archives of Sir Isaac Newton and Professor Stephen Hawking.”

While there is no CCTV of the area where the manuscripts were returned, Dr Gardner said entrances and exits to the building are covered, as are targeted areas such as strong rooms and specialist reading rooms.

She said available footage has been handed to police, adding: “It really is a mystery.

“We don’t know how and we don’t know who.”

Dr Jessica Gardner with the returned Darwin manuscripts Credit: Cambridge University Library/PA

The notebooks had been removed from storage to be photographed at the library’s photographic unit, where the work was recorded as completed in November 2000.

During a subsequent routine check in January 2001, it was found that the small blue box containing the notebooks had not been returned to its proper place.

Dr Gardner said the library building had “transformed significantly” since then, with card-and-pin access to secure areas, a dedicated onsite security team, high security strong rooms and additional CCTV.

She added there would be “further root-and-branch reviews of all our security protocols to come – to make sure we minimise any future risk as far as humanly possible”.

The area where the items were left in a pink gift bag was not covered by CCTV cameras Credit: Cambridge University Library/PA

Professor Stephen J Toope, vice-chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said he was “incredibly glad to hear of the notebooks’ safe return to their rightful home”.

“Objects such as these are crucial for our understanding of not only the history of science but the history of humankind,” he said.

The returned notebooks have been verified as being the originals Credit: Cambridge University Library/PA

The notebooks are to go on public display from July, as part of the library’s Darwin In Conversation exhibition.

A Cambridgeshire Police spokesman said: “Our investigation remains open and we are following up some lines of inquiry.

“We also renew our appeal for anyone with information about the case to contact us.”