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Rare letter written by Christopher Columbus is being returned by U.S. to Italy

A photo of the stolen rare copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus.
Federal agents are returning a rare copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus that had been stolen from a library in Italy and later discovered at the Library of Congress.
(Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

A stolen copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus detailing his voyage in 1492 to the New World is being returned to the Old World.

The letter was penned by Columbus as he returned to Spain after his historic trip to the Americas. Though it was printed and widely distributed throughout Europe, helping spread word of Columbus’ journey, there are no more than 80 surviving copies of the various revisions of the letter, published between 1493 and 1497.

In 2012, agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement got a tip that one of the rare copies — printed in Rome by Stephan Plannek in 1493 — had been stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, and replaced with a forgery.

The tipster, who was not identified, had been conducting research when he came across the letter and “strongly suspected” it was a fake, agent Mark W. Olexa of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations wrote in court filings.  

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Olexa wrote that ICE agents, Italian law enforcement officials and experts examined the copy, which was bound in a volume of other works, and concluded it was indeed a fake.

A few months later, ICE agents got another tip that the original was actually located in the U.S. Library of Congress. An examination of the letter there revealed it was the original.

In an attempt to disguise its provenance, someone had even bleached away a Riccardiana Library stamp on one of its pages.

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A bit of detective work revealed the Library of Congress had obtained the letter in 2004 from a donor, who had purchased it from a New York auction house for $300,000 in 1992, Olexa wrote. It had been consigned to auction by a rare books dealer who had purchased the letter, now bound in the form of a small red book, from “an unknown entity” two years earlier.

Agents seized the letter, flew with it across the Atlantic and are expected to return it to Italian officials.

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Twitter: @delwilber


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