In February 1493, while sailing back to Europe from the Americas, the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus began writing a letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. In it, he recorded his first impressions of the landscape and people he encountered on his historic journey to the New World. Columbus’ letter was reprinted and distributed widely across Europe, helping spread the word about his discoveries; only a handful of original copies survive to the present day. Thanks to a joint American-Italian investigation, one of these rare documents–stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy and replaced with a high-quality photocopy–was recently found in the collections of the U.S. Library of Congress. Estimated to be worth more than $1 million, the letter was returned to Italian authorities this week.
Christopher Columbus landed on the island he called San Salvador, in the Bahamas, in October 1492. He spent the next five months exploring the Caribbean, particularly the islands of Juana (Cuba) and Hispaniola before sailing back to Spain to share news of his fantastic discoveries.
“I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people,” Columbus wrote in an eight-page letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, according to a translation by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. “I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his standard, no one making any resistance.” After describing the fertility of the land and the abundance of natural resources, Columbus commented on the native people he had encountered, whom he saw as “fearful and timid…guileless and honest and hoped “might become Christian and inclined to love our king and queen and princes and all the people of Spain.”
Columbus’ letter would be printed and distributed in different languages across Europe. Originally penned in Spanish, it was reprinted in a Latin translation by the Roman printer Stephen Plannck, including 11 editions in 1493 and six more between 1494-97. There are believed to be no more than 80 surviving copies today.
Back in 2012, agents from the Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) received a tip that one of the Latin copies Plannk printed had been stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy and replaced with a forgery. The unidentified tipster had been doing research in the library’s collections when he came across the letter bound in a volume with other documents and suspected it was a fake. Around the same time, the National Library in Rome discovered that its own copy of the 1493 letter had also been stolen and replaced with a forgery at some point.
A subsequent investigation by U.S. and Italian officials confirmed that the letter encountered by the researcher in the Riccardiana was in fact a high-quality photocopy, without an original library stamp and with different stitching patterns consistent with other editions of the letter. After confirming the forgery, HIS agents began tracing the letter’s path. Though they still don’t know the circumstances of the theft, the agents were able to determine that a rare book dealer in Switzerland had purchased the original in 1990. Two years later, it was sold at an auction house in New York for $300,000 (Italian authorities currently value the letter at some $1.1 million.) The collector who purchased the letter at auction donated it to the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.
The investigation then shifted to Washington, D.C., where agents worked with library staff and experts to determine the document’s authenticity. They found evidence of chemical bleach on one of the pages, suggesting someone had attempted to disguise its provenance by removing the Riccardiana Library stamp. Due to this and other findings, the investigators concluded that the letter was in fact the original printed by Plannck in 1493.
While investigation into the theft is still ongoing, the letter itself returned to Italy this week, where it was unveiled to the Italian press in a repatriation ceremony and news conference at the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome. As Italian Culture Minister Enrico Franceschini pointed out at the ceremony: “It is interesting how 500 years after the letter was written it has made the same trip back and forth from America.”
U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips, who attended the ceremony, called it “a symbolic event which shows the level of friendship and collaboration between the two countries.” As reported by the Delaware News Journal, Phillips would not identify the estate that donated the letter to the Library of Congress, due to the ongoing investigation, but U.S. officials have said both the donor and the Library acquired the document in good faith, and had not known of its shady provenance.