US government officials announced last week the recovery of a 525-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his discoveries in the Americas. The letter, originally written in 1493, was stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona and sold for approximately $1 million.
The letter has now been returned to Spain after a ceremony with the Spanish Ambassador to the United States. The return of the letter was the culmination of a seven-year investigation jointly conducted by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Department of Justice (DOJ), Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware. It began in 2011 when HSI Wilmington and the Delaware U.S. Attorney’s Office received a tip that several 15th century original manually printed copies of the Columbus Letter were stolen from European libraries and replaced with forgeries without the knowledge of library officials or local law enforcement. The investigation determined that the stolen Columbus Letter from Spain was sold in November of 2005 for 600,000 Euros by two Italian book dealers.
In June 2012, a subject matter expert, accompanied by an HSI Wilmington Special Agent, visited the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona and reviewed the Columbus Letter in the possession of the library at which time it was determined, in coordination with Spanish authorities and with support from HSI Madrid that the letter at the library was a forgery.
In March 2013, it was discovered that the Columbus Letter believed to have been stolen from Barcelona was reportedly sold for 900,000 euros in June 2011. Following extensive negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, the individual in possession of the letter volunteered to transfer custody to HSI Special Agents, which was then brought to Wilmington, Delaware in February 2014 for further examination.
In March 2014, a subject matter expert evaluated the letter and determined that the document was “beyond all doubt” the original stolen from the National Library of Catalonia. Additionally, other experts conducted a series of non-invasive digital imaging tests, which determined, among other things, the probable use of a chemical agent to bleach the ink of National Library of Catalonia’s stamp and that the paper fibers of the Catalonia Plannck II Columbus Letter had been disturbed from their original state where the stamps were previously located.
U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss stated, “The recovery of this Plannck II Columbus Letter on behalf of the Spanish government exemplifies not only the significance of federal agency partnerships in these complicated investigations, but the close coordination that exists between American and foreign law enforcement agencies. We are truly honored to return this historically important document back to Spain – its rightful owner. I commend the dogged efforts of HSI special agents and Department of Justice attorneys who are dedicated to the recovery of stolen cultural artifacts from around the world.”
Today’s repatriation marks the second return of a Columbus letter by ICE, the most recent until now taking place in May 2016.
ICE has returned over 11,000 artifacts to over 30 countries since 2007, including paintings from France, Germany, Poland and Austria, 15th-18th century manuscripts from Italy and Peru, cultural artifacts from China, Cambodia, and two Baatar dinosaur fossils to Mongolia, ancient artifacts including a mummy’s hand to Egypt, royal seals valued at $1,500,000 to the Republic of Korea, and most recently, thousands of ancient artifacts to Iraq.