Stolen Letter Written by Christopher Columbus Returns to Italy

| Fri, 07/21/2023 - 15:32
The document, printed in Rome in 1493, is one of 30 known surviving first editions of a letter written by Columbus to the Spanish monarchs

A rare incunabulum — an early printed document or book — penned around 500 years ago by Genoese adventurer Cristoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) has made its way back to Italy.

Written in Latin with the subject line “de Insulis Indiae supera Gangem nuper inventis” (of the Islands of India above the Ganges recently discovered), the eight-page document chronicles Columbus’ findings in the New World for the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who funded the voyage. It is considered to have immense bibliographical, cultural and commercial value — the latter estimated at around $1.3 million (€1.2 million).

The copy of the letter dates from 1493, after Columbus’ return to Europe from the Americas. Printed in Rome by the prominent German publisher, Stephan Plannck, the bound manuscript is one of 30 known surviving first editions of the letter. This particular edition is believed to have been stolen from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice in 1988 or around that time. 

The document was found in the hands of a wealthy Dallas-based collector (who was later determined to have obtained it legitimately, without any knowledge of its illicit past). He willingly relinquished the letter and cooperated with its reinstatement in the Venetian library.

To mark the return of the high-profile document to Venice’s Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, a Columbus-focused exhibition set to travel around the Veneto region is in the works, culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano confirmed. 

Other recent “return trips”

The investigation was conducted by the Carabinieri TPC (Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage) and the HSI (the investigative branch of the US Department of Homeland Security), with help from former Princeton librarian and rare book expert Paul Needham. 

It’s far from the only time that the shared efforts of Italian and US authorities have produced plundered pay dirt. The document’s “return voyage” is part of ongoing efforts by US authorities to repatriate looted texts, artifacts, artworks and other objects of cultural heritage. In January of this year, some 60 looted artworks and precious stolen artifacts, recovered from private and public collections, were returned to the Italian state. 

And in 2016, another rare copy of the Columbus letter was returned from the US Library of Congress to its rightful place in Florence’s Biblioteca Riccardiana, with help from Paul Needham, the same rare book expert who worked on this investigation (though how the copy ended up in the Library of Congress remains a mystery). The Florentine institution had unknowingly displayed a forged copy for years. 

For this most recent repatriation, a ceremony was held in Rome on July 19, with numerous American and Italian officials in attendance, including Acting Director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Patrick J. Lechleitner, who delivered the document, and Commander of the Carabinieri for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, Brigadier General Vincenzo Molinese.

“The vestiges of history and art are the heritage of all humanity and must be preserved,” Molinese said.