Monday, June 7, 2010

The Case of the Purloined Letter and The (Allegedly) Stolen Bible, Part One.

An Excerpt From The Purloined Letter, Written By Rene Descartes In 1641.
(Image Courtesy Of Haverford College.)

Two institutions, two libraries, two allegations that each holds a unique and priceless literary document which is stolen property. Two American archives each housing a cultural treasure from, in one case, France; and in the other, Armenia. Two very different reactions to requests that their respective ill-gotten gains be repatriated to the country which believes itself to be the rightful owner.

One institution has a spotless reputation for honorable conduct; the other's name is already mud-stained by earlier theft allegations from Italy and Greece. One case already has a happy ending; the other seems to be headed for years of expensive court battles. Two cases which exemplify the good, the bad, and the ugly in the sometimes shady world of collecting rare documents.

The Interior Of The Magill Library At Haverford College Library Ca. 1915.
(Image Courtesy of Haverford College, Gift Of Helen Sharpless.)

In this good news, bad news story, Part One is the story of the White Knight: Haverford College. Haverford is an elite, private college located in a suburb of Philadelphia. Founded by members of the Orthodox Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in 1833, it is a small school with big prestige. Despite never having an enrollment of more than 1,200 students, Haverford has produced four Nobel Prize winners, four MacArthur Fellows, ten Marshall Scholars, and nineteen Rhodes Scholars. Famous former students include writers Nicholson Baker and Lloyd Alexander, and artist Maxfield Parrish.

A Distinguished Gathering Of Students And Faculty In Alumni Hall,
Haverford College's First Library, In 1865.
(Image Courtesy Of Haverford College.)

Haverford College in also unique for being governed by an honor code (.pdf format) which was created by the student body and is administered by them to this day. The code applies to both academics and personal behavior, not with specific rules but rather with a pledge to be respectful, trustworthy, and caring. This brings us to The Case of the Purloined Letter, in which the faculty of Haverford behaves with the same grace that is expected of the honor-bound students.

Rene Descartes Signature (lower left) On The Purloined Letter.
(Image courtesy Of Haverford College.)

In late 2009, the head of special collections at Haverford's library, John Anderies, began to inventory documents from a large collection donated by 1864 alumnus and autograph collector, Charles Roberts. These unique items were to be digitized and made available online. When the inventory was posted on Haverford's website, a Dutch scholar, Erik-Jan Bos, immediately recognized one document as part of a collection of thousands which had been stolen from a French library in the mid-eighteenth century. It was an irreplaceable handwritten letter authored by French philosopher and mathematician Rene Descartes (1596-1650) on May 27, 1641, outlining the contents of his most famous book, Meditationes de prima philosophia (1641).

Notorious Book and Document Thief Count Guglielmo Libri (1803–1869).
Professor of Mathematics at the Coll├Ęge de France and

Secretary of the Committee for the General Catalogue
of Manuscripts In French Public Libraries.
(Image Courtesy of Haverford College.)

The Descartes letter had been pilfered from a French library by one of the most notorious document and book thieves in history, Count Guglielmo Libri Carucci dalla Sommaja (1803–1869). This former government inspector of French libraries stole some 30,000 rare items from the very libraries he was entrusted with protecting. (And probably several thousand more from a previous similar position he held in Italy.) Libri escaped to England with his booty, and though convicted of grand theft in absentia, he was never apprehended, and lived by selling off the stolen documents and books to unsuspecting, or uncaring, collectors. Thus Haverford grad Charles Roberts purchased the Descartes letter, unaware of it's illicit origins.

Charles Roberts, Haverford Class Of 1864. He Bought The Descartes letter,
Unaware It Was Stolen. His Widow Donated It To Haverford In 1902.
(Image Courtesy of Haverford College.)

So how did the faculty of Haverford College, with their tradition of Quaker morality and personal honor, react to the news that they were in possession of booty from one of history's most infamous book thieves? Exactly like the valiant White Knight in a medieval romance: "We're not in the business of keeping stolen property," college President Stephen Emerson said. After a brief investigation confirming the letter as stolen, Emerson contacted Gabriel de Broglie, chancellor of the Institut de France, to facilitate the return of the irreplaceable piece of cultural history to its rightful owner. For his part de Broglie was so pleased with this "gesture [that] honors you and exemplifies the depth of moral values that you instill in your students," that he insisted on giving Haverford a 15,000 Euro ($19,000) reward.

Portrait Of Rene Descartes By A Follower Of Franz Hals.
Oil On Canvas, Ca. 1649-1700.

(Image Courtesy Of Wikipedia Commons.)

The Tale of the Purloined Letter shows what happens when respect, honor, and gratitude govern the rare document trade. France regains a national treasure, and Haverford College further cements its reputation for integrity. The Institute de France graciously rewards a library that does the right thing without hesitation, and Haverford uses the reward money to establish a scholarship for the study of French language and culture. Its a big win for everyone involved in an ownership dispute that easily could have gone bad. And just how ugly could the case of the purloined letter have been? Find out in Part Two of this piece in Wednesday's Booktryst: The Case of the (Allegedly) Stolen Bible.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email