For a century, Italian officials believed a rare copy of a letter, written by Christopher Columbus documenting his journey to the Americas, was safely housed in Rome.
No one noticed when a thief swapped the 1493 account with a forgery.
But in 2011, American authorities received a tip: Columbus’s letters from several libraries across Europe — including one in Italy — had been replaced with counterfeit copies.
Acting on the tip, the Justice Department opened an investigation and eventually recovered the letters.
On Thursday, after seven years, U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich returned one of the stolen documents to the Vatican Library.
“The Columbus Letter, written in 1493, is a priceless piece of cultural history,” Gingrich said at a presentation in Rome. “I am honored to return this remarkable letter to the Vatican Library — its rightful home.”
The lengthy letter was written after Columbus explored the Caribbean, according to the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.
During that voyage, the institute explained, Columbus “left thirty-nine men to build a settlement called La Navidad in present-day Haiti. He also kidnapped several Native Americans (between ten and twenty-five) to take back to Spain — only eight survived. Columbus brought back small amounts of gold as well as native birds and plants to show the richness of the continent he believed to be Asia.”
When Columbus arrived back in Spain on March 15, 1493, he immediately wrote a letter announcing his discoveries to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had helped finance his trip. The letter was written in Spanish and sent to Rome, where it was printed in Latin by Stephan Plannck. Plannck mistakenly left Queen Isabella’s name out of the pamphlet’s introduction but quickly realized his error and reprinted the pamphlet a few days later.
In the Gilder Lehrman Institute’s translated version of the letter, Columbus writes of the kidnapping:
As soon as I had come into this sea, I took by force some Indians from the first island, in order that they might learn from us, and at the same time tell us what they knew about affairs in these regions. This succeeded admirably; for in a short time we understood them and they us both by gesture and signs and words; and they were of great service to us. They are coming now with me, and have always believed that I have come from Heaven, notwithstanding the long time they have been, and still remain, with us. They were the first who told this wherever we went, one calling to another, with a loud voice, Come, Come, you will see Men from Heaven. Whereupon both women and men, children and adults, young and old, laying aside the fear they had felt a little before, flocked eagerly to see us, a great crowd thronging about our steps, some bringing food, and others drink, with greatest love and incredible good will.
He also writes:
I saw no monsters, neither did I hear accounts of any such except in an island called Charis, the second as one crosses over from Spain to India, which is inhabited by a certain race regarded by their neighbors as very ferocious. They eat human flesh, and make use of several kinds of boats by which they cross over to all the Indian islands, and plunder and carry off whatever they can. But they differ in no respect from the others except in wearing their hair long after the fashion of women. They make use of bows and arrows made of reeds, having pointed shafts fastened to the thicker portion, as we have before described. For this reason they are considered to be ferocious, and the other Indians consequently are terribly afraid of them; but I consider them of no more account than the others. They have intercourse with certain women who dwell alone upon the island of Mateurin, the first as one crosses from Spain to India. These women follow none of the usual occupations of their sex; but they use bows and arrows like those of their husbands, which I have described, and protect themselves with plates of copper, which is found in the greatest abundance among them.
Federal officials remain unsure when the Vatican’s letter was taken, but they were able to make two definitive determinations, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie McCall: The letter that had been housed in the Vatican archives was fake, and the original was in the American state of Georgia.
“Once there’s a confirmed forgery in a particular library, there’s an investigation into whether any U.S. law was violated,” McCall said. “Separate and apart from that, we try to actually locate the artifact, recover it and repatriate it back to its rightful owner.”
In 2004, Atlanta resident David Parsons bought the original from a rare book dealer. At the time of the $875,000 purchase, an expert in rare manuscripts was consulted on the document’s authenticity.
There were about 30 copies of the specific Columbus letter printing in circulation and forgeries had been sold to unsuspecting collectors over the years. Based on the binding dimensions (which were a perfect fit) and remnants of the original sewing, the consultant was able to authenticate Parsons’s letter.
Parsons died in 2014, leaving the letter to his wife, Mary. Agents contacted her about the stolen heirloom last year. She allowed a side-by-side inspection of both letters. The examination quickly confirmed that her letter was the original, and she relinquished any property interest in it.
At the Vatican, Gingrich commended Parsons “for graciously agreeing to return this letter to the Vatican,” adding that it was purchased “without knowledge of its theft. Understandably, she found it difficult to part with this piece.”
Parsons’s was the third Columbus letter to be returned to Europe since 2016.
The first was returned to the Riccadiana Library in Florence in May 2016; the document had been part of a private collection donated to the Library of Congress. Last week, on June 6, another letter stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona was returned to the Spanish government. It was also discovered with a private collector, according to McCall.
“Each forgery that was put in place of the original was sophisticated,” McCall said. “Each had its own unique characteristics that accompanied it.”
Like the hallmarks seen in Parsons’s, most commonly seen were the papers’ dimensions and the binding stitching.
Since 2007, the Department of Homeland Security has returned more than 10,000 artifacts to over 30 countries, according to Gingrich’s remarks on Thursday. In a trend of American repatriation, a small group of Italian officials, federal employees and Gingrich gathered outside the Vatican library to formally sign over one Columbus letter.
This ceremony, Gingrich said, was an example of the close ties between the United States and the Holy See, and the special cooperation between government agencies.
According to McCall, there is an ongoing investigation to determine who is criminally responsible for the theft.
Still, he said, the second part of this type of case is recovery. “It’s one of the great aspects of these investigations. When we’re able to identify, recover and return these artifacts to other governments, it shows we’re willing to work with these agencies and foreign governments.”
Thursday’s ceremony in Rome marked the official return of the Columbus letter, a significant piece of cultural history. “These acts of goodwill and collaboration will hopefully make those other issues easier,” McCall said.