An original copy of a letter from Christopher Columbus detailing his first voyage to the Americas has just sold for $3.9 million. The text, which had been in the possession of a private Swiss library for nearly a century, fetched twice its estimated price in a recent Christie’s auction.
In 1493, Columbus wrote to Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain, who had funded his voyage, and described his journey across the Atlantic. The letter was translated into Latin and distributed widely throughout Europe.
“This document set off one of the first-ever media frenzies, spreading rapidly throughout Europe and forever changing peoples’ perception of the size, shape and possibilities of their world,” writes the auction house in a statement.
In the letter, Columbus strikes a boastful tone. He writes that he has “discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people” and that he “took possession of all of them” for the king of Spain, going on to recall everything he witnessed in what he incorrectly thought were the “islands of India.”
“It’s kind of like when Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder and started talking about the powder of the lunar surface and how his boots stuck down,” Steve Berry, author of The Columbus Affair, tells the Washington Post’s Kyle Melnick. “He’s giving you a description of everything he’s seeing in this strange new world.”
Selling copies of this particular letter is surprisingly challenging. A long history of forgeries and thefts has fueled increased scrutiny of any that go to auction.
In recent decades, experts determined that several copies of the letter had been stolen and replaced with fakes. Those original copies have since been recovered and returned to libraries in Barcelona, Florence and the Vatican. Just this summer, another copy was returned to Italy, where it had been missing from Venice's Marciana National Library since the late 1980s. It was discovered in a privately owned library in the United States, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Margaret Ford, Christie’s international head of books and manuscripts, is confident the auction house’s copy is the real deal. “There’s been a whole panoply of clues and lines of investigation that we have followed, and none of them has turned up anything suspicious,” Ford tells the New York Times’ Julia Jacobs.
Another wrinkle for sellers is Columbus’ controversial legacy. Due to his exploitation of Indigenous groups, critics argue that history should remember him not as a groundbreaking explorer but as a ruthless colonizer. “As a brutal colonial governor and viceroy, Columbus would systematically exploit the Taíno people of the Caribbean, forcing them to mine gold and deliver quotas on pain of harsh punishment,” writes the Guardian’s Donna Ferguson. “Hundreds were enslaved by Columbus and shipped to Spain to be sold, and others were massacred or subjected to extreme violence and cruelty.”
Now, Indigenous Peoples’ Day is widely celebrated instead of Columbus Day, and dozens of monuments to Columbus have been removed in recent years, per the Washington Post. Still, Berry tells the publication that the fraught history surrounding the letter doesn’t undercut its significance.
“It doesn’t diminish his initial report and the value of this historical document—not in the least,” he says.