Man awarded $750K in loss of Einstein letters

Wildfire at Henry W. Coe State Park destroyed original documents by Albert Einstein

A man who lost valuable letters from Albert Einstein in a wildfire at Henry W. Coe State Park four years ago was awarded $750,000 in damages in civil court.

Dan Straus, a chemistry professor who filed the suit in August 2008, Wednesday said he would trade in the money for the papers, but is happy he can finally move on.

"I'll never have the papers back," Straus said. "If I could have what was burned, versus the settlement, I'd have the papers. What it means to me now is maybe I can stop thinking about it so much."

The letters contained mathematical formulas that Einstein had written to Straus' father, Ernst, a friend and colleague of Einstein's at Princeton University. All that remains from the collection of Einstein's papers is a poem that Einstein wrote to Straus' parents 11 days after Straus was born and which was given to him when he was young.

It was the only document that Straus had kept at home at the time. The rest Straus had stored in a fire-resistant safe inside a travel trailer at the state park, where on Sept. 3, 2007, a fast-moving fire burned down the trailer, along with the papers, two small cabins, a deck and woodshed.

In total, the Lick Fire, named after the University of California's Lick Observatory at Mt. Hamilton in Santa Clara County, burned a total of 47,760 acres and destroyed four residential units and 20 outbuildings, according to Cal Fire. It was found that Margaret Pavese had illegally lit paper plates in a burn barrel on a property owned by her husband, Lawrence, and her father-in-law, Ernest, outside the park.

On Friday, following a weeklong trial, a Santa Clara County jury held Margaret Pavese, along with her husband and father-in-law, liable for the loss of the papers. In 2009, Margaret Pavese paid Straus $40,000 for the loss of his cabins, deck and woodshed.

Straus said he plans to use some of the money to pay his legal fees and the college expenses for a woman who took care of his mother before she died. He said he would share the rest with his 21-year-old niece, Emily, a hairdresser in Wichita, Kan., and his 18-year-old nephew, Ben, an art student in Santa Rosa.

— Bay City News Service

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


Like this comment
Posted by Joyce
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 7, 2011 at 10:47 am

So sad to know that documents even in a fire "resistant-safe" is not really safe. I keep so many sentimental items, not necessarily very expensive. Like Professor Strauss said that he doesn't care about the money those documents had much more sentimental value!

So basically no place is totally safe :-(. Hind sight, is it safe to say if you have some documents of that great value better to loan 'em to some museum for display. You'll earn some money & keep the documents safe at the same time. Just a thought, what if I end up collecting or having things with great value and purpose.

Like this comment
Posted by In a Shack?
a resident of Mountain View
on Jul 7, 2011 at 10:54 am

Why was he storing such valuable papers in a shack in the widerness? Even if they were in a "fire resistent" safe, they were at terrible risk being stored so poorly.
They should have been properly conserved in a controlled environment in a secured building such as a museum. If he wanted to consult them, he should have kept copies around for that purpose.
I realize that they were "personal" documents, but such important artifacts are truely the property of humanity, and should have been treated as the treasures they were.

Like this comment
Posted by moi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2011 at 11:24 am

It's all relative.

Like this comment
Posted by Steve C
a resident of Menlo Park
on Jul 7, 2011 at 11:32 am

Wow, such valuable documents stored so carelessly. What a shame. I wouldn't spend that money until it's in the bank. It's one thing to have a court award an amount, another thing to actually be able to collect it.

Like this comment
Posted by Sic-Transit-Gloria-Mundi
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jul 7, 2011 at 1:49 pm

No copies? This guy clearly was not the best person to be in possession of these documents.

Like this comment
Posted by Hard Money
a resident of Community Center
on Jul 7, 2011 at 3:36 pm

I understand this part: "Margaret Pavese had illegally lit paper plates in a burn barrel" action=conquences. But how is it that the husband and father-in-law, liable for the loss of the papers?

Did they tell her to start the fire?
More data please.
Also who will be paying the judgment, these people personally or someone else?

Like this comment
Posted by Walter_E_Wallis
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 8, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Why was this not covered by insurance?

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

Peek inside the fine-dining Selby's, opening in Redwood City this summer
By Elena Kadvany | 3 comments | 3,076 views

Juggling Renewables
By Sherry Listgarten | 44 comments | 2,176 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 5 comments | 974 views

Premarital and Couples: "You're Not Listening to Me!" may mean "I don't feel heard."
By Chandrama Anderson | 1 comment | 735 views

Migraines and motherhood
By Cheryl Bac | 0 comments | 473 views


Vote now!

It's time once again to cast your vote for the best places to eat, drink, shop and spend time in Palo Alto. Voting is open now through May 27. Watch for the results of our 2019 Best Of contest on Friday, July 19.