New Historian

Stolen Columbus Letter Makes Another Trip Across the Atlantic

Christopher Columbus

<![CDATA[Italian authorities have announced that the United States has returned a stolen copy of a letter Christopher Columbus wrote to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. Columbus wrote the eight-page letter (four pages, double sided) on February 15, 1493 onboard his ship, the Niña, as he traveled back to Spain following his momentous voyage to the Americas. The letter was translated to Latin, and then printed for distribution around Europe to spread the word about the discovery of the New World and what had been found there. In the letter, Columbus describes his impression about the Americas, about the people there, and about the fauna and flora he had seen. Just a handful of the printed copies have survived intact. The one discovered in the United States is part of a volume made up of 42 different books from the 1490s, bound and printed by Stephan Plannck, which became known as the Plannck II Columbus letter. It had been kept at the Riccardiana library, in Florence, Italy Unbeknownst to library personnel, the volume was stolen and replaced with a forgery. The theft is believed to have occurred 24 years ago, but it’s also possible the switch could have occurred in 1950 or 1951 when the book was on loan, although experts describe the forgery methods as being more current. The substitution wasn’t discovered until 2012, when special agents with U.S. Homeland Security received a tip saying the Plannck II letter in Italy was a forgery, which they then forwarded to the Cabrinieri art unit in Italy. After an examination of the Library’s copy of the letter by scientific experts, the rough binding, different page size and different style of print all clearly indicated the letter was a forgery. The authentic, stolen volume, missing the Riccardiana Library’s stamp, had been bought by a Swiss rare-book collector in 1990 who then sold it to a private collector at a Christies auction for $300,000 in 1992 (the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage). The Cabrinieri art unit has estimated the value of the letter to be around one million euros ($1.13 million). Ultimately, in 2004, the letter was bequeathed to the Library of Congress located in Washington, D.C., by an estate which the U.S. has not identified since they believe the donor acted in good faith when making the donation. Crucial details remain a mystery however, and are the basis of further investigations by American and Italian authorities, such as the exact date of the theft, the identity of the thieves, the author of the forgery and how the original found its way to a book collector in Switzerland. As Charles M. Oberly, III., a U.S. Attorney, explained to Discovery News, documents like the Plannck II Letter by Christopher Columbus have a significant historical value because they provide historical facts concerning crucial events in history. It was also noted by the Italian Culture Ministry that the letter made the same trip from America five hundred years after its first crossing. It’s anticipated that the document will be returned to its original home with the Riccardiana Library. ]]>

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