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Charles Darwin letter returned to Smithsonian over 30 years after theft

on Thursday, 02 June 2016. Posted in General Autograph News

by Alan Yuhas

The 1875 letter, part of correspondence between British scientist and Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, was stolen by an employee in mid-1970s, FBI said
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Charles Darwin’s handwritten letter to Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden thanked the fellow naturalist for field studies in what became Yellowstone national park. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

More than three decades after a letter by Charles Darwin was stolen, the FBI’s art crime team has recovered and returned it to the Smithsonian.

The letter, part of the Darwin’s correspondence with an American geologist, Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, was written in May 1875 to thank his fellow naturalist for field studies of what became Yellowstone national park. 

It was stolen in the mid-1970s from the Smithsonian archives, not long after it arrived there as part of the papers of George Perkins Miller, another 19th-century geologist.

An FBI spokesperson told the Guardian the letter was stolen by an employee before it could be inventoried in the large collection, so the theft at first went unnoticed. Earlier this year, the FBI received a tip from someone who said they knew where the letter was kept – in the Washington DC area, not far from the Smithsonian.

Agents were able to recover and authenticate the letter, assistant director-in-charge Paul Abbate said in a statement. The spokesperson said no one would face prosecution, because the statute of limitations has expired.

In the handwritten note, Darwin describes himself as “anxious to see the conclusions” of Vandeveer Hayden’s reports on Yellowstone, Colorado and New Mexico, and “especially obliged” for receipt of the works.

“It’s a privilege to return a piece of the history of science and exploration in the United States to the American people,” Abbate said. 

The FBI’s art crime team was created in 2004, as the black market sale of artifacts expanded after the invasion of Iraq. It says it has recovered more than 2,650 items valued at more than $150m. 

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The letter in question. Photograph: Handout/FBI

The team’s director, Bonnie Magness-Gardner, has said most art thieves target private collectors rather than museums. The black market for such art has been estimated to be worth $6bn. 

Items the FBI team has recovered include North Carolina’s bill of rights, which was stolen by Union soldiers during the civil war, and paintings by Pablo Picasso and John Singleton Copley.

Still unsolved is a Boston art heist in which Rembrandt’s Storm on the Sea of Galilee and 12 other works worth an estimated $500m were stolen, a theft possibly linked to an alleged mobster serving time on drug and gun charges.

Darwin, who corresponded with thousands around the world, took a keen interest in the ecology of North America and the fate of the American civil war. He exchanged hundreds of letters with American naturalists, including his friend Asa Gray, a devout Presbyterian and botanist who defended Darwin from creationists and skeptics. 

He also wrote to Othniel Charles Marsh, the American paleontologist who discovered hundreds of fossils around the US during his so-called “Bone Wars” against Edward Cope, and who applied Darwin’s theory of evolution to prehistoric life.

“Your work on these old birds on the many fossil animals of N[orth] America has afforded the best support to the theory of evolution, which has appeared within the last 20 years,” Darwin wrote to Marsh in 1880.