Stolen Descartes letter returns home to Paris

Stolen Descartes letter, dated May 27, 1641In January of this year, Erik-Jan Bos, a Dutch scholar working on a book of famed French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes’ correspondence was surfing the web when he found a reference to Descartes in a manuscript collection at Haverford College. He contacted John Anderies, the Head of Special Collections at Haverford, and after putting their heads together they realized that Haverford had an authentic unknown letter in Descartes’ own hand, and not just any letter, but a pivotal letter he wrote to close friend Father Marin Mersenne about his soon-to-be-published Meditations on First Philosophy.

The letter had been donated to the college in 1902 by Lucy Branson Roberts, widow of Charles Roberts, Haverford Class of 1864 and avid autograph collector. What Roberts didn’t know when he bought it (nor did his widow know when she donated it) was that the letter had been stolen by Italian nobleman, scholar and notorious, shameless thief Count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja when he served as secretary of the Committee for the General Catalog of Manuscripts in French Public Libraries at some point during the 1840s.

When Haverford president Stephen G. Emerson was told about the purloined Descartes letter, he didn’t even hesitate. On February 11th, coincidentally the anniversary of Descartes’ death 360 years earlier, he called Gabriel de Broglie, Chancellor of the Institut de France, and offered to return the precious artifact. Broglie accepted with alacrity, invited Emerson to Paris to return the letter in person and receive a 15,000 euro prize on behalf of the Institut, which has been trying with limited success to reclaim the 72 Descartes letters Libri stole from its collection for a century and a half.

Today, Emerson returned the letter to the Institut and Broglie gave him a check.

In a formal ceremony in the Institute’s timbered library, Chancellor Gabriel de Broglie thanked Haverford’s president Stephen Emerson for the “integrity and honesty” of his gesture, which will bring to 17 the number of Descartes letters held by the Institute. The letter was apparently stolen by Guglielmo Libri, an Italian count and mathematician who amassed a huge collection of purloined manuscripts in the mid-19th century.

“Your university will eradicate the bad memories that Libri left in our institution,” Mr de Broglie said at the ceremony.

Haverford has decided to use the award money to purchase new historical documents and finance future studies in France by college students and faculty.

This story put a lump in my throat when I first read about it a few months ago (thank you, Clutch) and it still does now. It also puts a fog of rage in my head over what a rat bastard that Libri son of a bitch was. The Guardian has an article about the swath he cut through French literary collections and how high on the hog he lived from the profits of his iniquity.

Count Guglielmo Libri, scholar and rat bastardHis love and knowledge of books were recognised when he was appointed Inspector of Libraries, tasked with cataloguing valuable works. Instead of documenting them, however, he began stealing them.

Tipped off about his imminent arrest, Libri fled once more – to England, bringing with him around 30,000 books and manuscripts in 18 large trunks, including works by Galileo and Copernicus. Although found guilty of theft by a French court and sentenced in absentia to 10 years’ in jail in 1850, Libri enjoyed the high life in London, funded by selling the stolen tomes.

He returned to Italy to die in 1868. Learning of his death, the French government requested the return of some of the manuscripts and offered to buy back those that had been sold. Some were returned, but tens of thousands of other precious stolen works simply disappeared.

Eighteen trunks of manuscripts blatantly stolen from public institutions and still being sold at auction and secreted away in collections all over the world to this day.