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Stolen Descartes letter found and returned

A letter written by Rene Descartes which was stolen in the 19th century has been found, via Google, in a library in the United States.

“I am, of course, a bit amazed at what a simple search at home from your home computer late at night can bring about,” Erik-Jan Bos, a Dutch Descartes scholar who found the letter through the web, said before a handover ceremony.

The letter written by French philosopher Rene Descartes in 1641 went missing more than 150 years ago, one of a vast collection of documents stolen by an Italian count, Guglielmo Libri.

Libri, a math professor in France in the 19th century who was also in charge of inspecting archived papers, is believed to have stolen thousands of letters and documents, selling them to collectors and booksellers.

Descartes’ letter eventually wound up in a collection at Haverford College in the US state of Pennsylvania, and the school’s administration was not aware of its theft generations earlier when Bos informed them of it.

Bos found the letter’s trace after keying the terms “autographed letter” and “Descartes” into the search engine late one night in January, contacting the college immediately by email and hearing back soon after.

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