Cogito ergo sum

Rene Descartes portrait by Frans Hals, 1648

On June 9th the president of Haverford College outside of Philadelphia, Stephen G. Emerson, returned a stolen piece of history to its rightful owners.  Since 1902 a letter by renowned philosopher Rene Descartes, addressed to his friend Marin Mersenne, sat in Haverford’s Quaker & Special Collections Library.  The letter, dated May 27, 1641, was donated by Lucy Branson Roberts, whose husband, Charles Roberts, was an alumnus of the college.  Mr. Roberts purchased the letter without knowing of its shady past.

The letter was stolen from Paris’ Institut de France by an Italian mathematician, Guglielmo Libri, in the 1840s.  Libri stole thousands of documents while serving as secretary of the Committee for the General Catalog of Manuscripts in French Public Libraries.  A Dutch scholar, Erik Jan-Bos, discovered the letters existence in Haverford’s collection by performing a Google search.  The Institut de France rewarded Haverford with a prize of 15,000 euros for the letters return.  “We couldn’t be more pleased with how this has been resolved,” concludes Haverford President Stephen Emerson.  “In our ever-shrinking world, when strangers become friends and then partners at the click of a mouse, we want to do all we can to show, by example, what it means for scholars and citizens to collaborate for the common good.”

Check your attics, people.  France is still searching for 27 of the 72 stolen Descartes letters….

(Stephen Emerson quote courtesy of Haverford College News Room )

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