Stolen in the 1980s, a Rare Christopher Columbus Letter Returns to Italy

The document is among several missing copies of the letter to be recovered from the U.S. in recent years

Christopher Columbus letter
U.S. authorities have returned a rare copy of a letter by Christopher Columbus, which vanished from Venice decades ago. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

Christopher Columbus—or at least his words—crossed the ocean yet again last week. American authorities traveled to Rome to repatriate a 15th-century letter that was stolen more than 30 years ago. 

“It is my pleasure to be here to celebrate the return of this important artifact to its rightful owners—the people of Italy,” said Patrick J. Lechleitner, deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), per a statement. “This is the fourth original edition of this letter stolen over the past decades and we could not be happier to return it.”

In 1493, Columbus wrote the letter to his patrons—Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain—and described his voyage to the Americas. The letter later made its way to Rome, where printer Stephan Plannck produced copies in Latin that circulated throughout Europe. These initial copies are now known as Plannck I; a few days later, he printed new copies, now known as Pannck II, after realizing he had left the queen’s name out of the introduction. 

The recently returned letter, stolen from Venice’s Marciana National Library, is a Plannck I copy, making it especially rare. When ICE announced its discovery in 2020, officials estimated it to be worth more than $1.3 million, reports NPR’s Rachel Treisman.

Letter close-up
In the 1493 letter, Columbus describes to his patrons, Ferdinand II and Isabella I of Spain, what he saw on his recent voyage. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement

It’s the latest of several stolen editions of the letter to be recovered in recent years. Officials have been investigating the letters since 2011, when they were contacted by Jay Dillon, a rare books dealer in New Jersey, reported CBS News in 2019. Dillon had discovered that copies of the letter at several institutions—the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona, the Vatican Library and the Riccardiana Library in Florence—had been stolen and replaced with forgeries.

After years of investigations, officials found and returned all three of these letters, which are all Plannck II editions. Still, they don’t know who carried out the thefts and forgeries. In the case of the Vatican Library theft, the forgery was created with a “stereotyping” technique popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, making it possible that the crime was committed many years ago. If that’s the case, “we will probably never know for sure who the forger was,” Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, the Vatican’s archivist and librarian, told the New York Times’ Elisabetta Povoledo in 2018.

Unlike those three letters, the copy missing from the Marciana National Library wasn’t replaced with a forgery. It had been recorded as missing in a 1988 physical inventory of the library’s collections. 

With the help of a rare books scholar from Princeton and staff from the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute, “it was determined that the Plannck I Columbus letter stolen from the Marciana National Library was likely the same Columbus letter in the collection of a privately owned library located in the United States,” according to ICE’s statement. The collector cooperated with the investigation and return.

Now back in Italy, the letter will soon be on the move again. Gennaro Sangiuliano, the country’s culture minister, announced on Twitter that the document will be featured in a traveling exhibition.

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