An auctioneer at Samuel T. Freeman Co. alerted the FBI, and the consignor of the collection relinquished her claim of ownership after investigators told her the items were stolen.
"We do not believe there is criminal intent on the part of the people who turned the documents over to us," Meehan said.
He said Buck's former secretary, whom he declined to identify, was no longer alive. The documents apparently had been stored for many decades without her family's knowledge, said Robert K. Wittman, senior investigator with the FBI's Art Crime Team.
Meehan and Jody Weis, the FBI special agent in charge of Philadelphia, lauded the recovery of the typewritten, hand-edited manuscript of one of the 20th century's most important novels, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932, was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie in 1937, and was instrumental in Buck's winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938.
The novel of family life in rural China introduced the Western world to the isolated nation, where Buck spent much of the first half of her life as the daughter of West Virginia missionaries. The book's huge success made Buck wealthy and set the stage for her later life as a humanitarian and pioneer in interracial understanding.
"It's a masterpiece of American literature," said Janet L. Mintzer, president and chief executive of Pearl S. Buck International, the philanthropy the author established and to which she donated much of her personal property. It is headquartered in Perkasie on Buck's farm, a National Historic Landmark that also contains the writer's gravesite and a museum in her two-story farmhouse.
Janice Walsh, 82, the eldest of Buck's seven adopted children, who joined Mintzer yesterday at a news conference at the Federal Building, said she believed the manuscript and letters should be displayed at the Bucks County museum.
But ownership of the documents might be fiercely disputed.
Since Buck's death in 1973 in Vermont and after six years of squabbling over several disputed wills, her heirs have clashed repeatedly with the foundation over ownership of her legacy.
The Pearl S. Buck Family Estate, headed by Edgar S. Walsh, 70, one of Buck's adopted sons, filed a claim June 12 with Meehan's office, asserting that it owns the manuscript and the letters. The estate controls the literary rights to Buck's works, which generate income for the heirs.
Edgar Walsh, who is overseas and did not attend the news conference, said in a recent interview the heirs might want to sell the collection to raise money. He cited the millions of dollars raised recently by the sale of the collected papers of Norman Mailer and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
But last week the Bucks County foundation filed a claim of ownership of the recovered letters and other papers, Mintzer said. The nonprofit promotes international adoption and addresses issues of poverty and discrimination against mixed-race children in Asian countries.
Mintzer described the letters as "a valuable addition to the Pearl S. Buck collection that will enhance our knowledge of Pearl Buck." She expressed hope that they would be exhibited at the Perkasie museum.
Meehan said the FBI would retain custody of the manuscript and the letters until the parties, or a court, could determine ownership.
"We're hopeful the parties, the institution and the family can sit down and work this through themselves and create a method by which the documents can be retained so they can be available to future generations," Meehan said.
Wearing white gloves to protect the fragile documents, FBI investigator Wittman spread the papers on a table for display yesterday.
The 400-page typescript, its pages yellowed and its edges worn, had been kept in a red Macy's Christmas box.
The trove included letters to Buck from luminaries such as former President Harry S. Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt, former Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. The correspondence, contained in a manila file that Buck had labeled "famous letters," appeared mostly to be from the late 1940s.
The entire collection was in a worn, cloth-bound suitcase in which it apparently had been stored for four decades.
The letters may provide insights into Buck's life. A 1946 letter from Truman, for instance, apparently was a response to a note from Buck expressing concern about growing hostilities between America and the Soviet Union after World War II.
"Candor compels me to say that I cannot follow the reasoning which leads you to the conclusion that we are creating a situation which will bring about war with the USSR," Truman wrote before inviting her "to have a full and frank talk."
Several 1933 letters between Buck and her publisher, Richard Walsh - they married two years later and carried on a collaborative literary partnership until his death in 1960 - attest to the trust they had established, as well as an awareness of the historical value of The Good Earth manuscript.
In a handwritten letter to Walsh, Buck ceded him ownership of The Good Earth manuscript for safekeeping. In response, a surprised Walsh accepted, conditionally.
"But I do wish to say to you that I do not believe that valuable manuscripts should remain in the possession of any individual, or that they should be sold for profit at any time," he wrote. "Therefore, I shall want to provide by some sort of documents, including my will, that the collection should at some proper time in the future be turned over to a library."
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Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or firstname.lastname@example.org.