Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2023 Issue

Fourth Stolen Columbus Letter Returned to Italian Library

Columbus letter returned to Mariana Library (ICE photograph).

Sometime between 1985 and 1988, a copy of the most important document of the New World disappeared from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (Marciana or St. Mark's National Library) in Venice, Italy. It was a copy of what is known as the Columbus Letter. When Christopher Columbus returned from his voyage across the ocean, he wrote a letter to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. He told of his wondrous discoveries.


Columbus didn't spend his time in the Americas, North or South. He was in the Caribbean, with most of his discoveries related to the island of Santo Domingo or Hispaniola. He left 39 men behind while returning to Spain with 20-25 natives he captured, only eight of whom survived the journey back. He also brought back a little gold and some birds and plants he found to demonstrate the richness of this new land. To impress the King and Queen, whom he hoped would finance further journeys, Columbus wrote, “I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King by making public proclamation and unfurling his standard, no one making any resistance.” Buttering up of the King and Queen par excellence!


Next, to further entice his patrons' interest, he said of the natives, “they are destitute of arms, which are entirely unknown to them, and for which they are not adapted; not on account of any bodily deformity, for they are well made, but because they are timid and full of terror.” Easy pickings. He added they were “fearful and timid,” plus “guileless and honest.” Then came the coup de grace, they “might become Christians and inclined to love our King and Queen and Princes and all the people of Spain.” Columbus could lay it on. Columbus would later prove to be a brutal conqueror, distressing even those who followed him, but that's a story for another day.


This is the fourth stolen Columbus letter to be returned to an Italian or Spanish library in the past few years. This theft was different in that the others were pulled off by replacing the original with a very skillfully made forgery. This succeeded in hiding the thefts for years. In this case, there was no substitution. The theft was discovered during an inventory in 1988, but the Marciana Library did not aggressively publish the fact. The result was that the other three cases of forged copies became widely known sooner. As a result of the recovery of the first three stolen letters, an expert was called in from Princeton University to determine whether any other Columbus letters had been stolen from Italian libraries. That's when it was learned that one had been missing from the Marciana Library since at least 1988.


The Marciana letter differed from the others in one important respect. It is what is known as Plannck I. The others were Plannck II. The letter, originally written in Spanish, was sent to Rome where it was translated to Latin and printed by Stephan Plannck. Plannck I was his first printing. In it, Plannck mistakenly left the Queen's name out of the introduction. He quickly realized his omission and reprinted it, which is now known as Plannck II. This was the earlier and more valuable edition. It has been estimated by U. S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as having a value of about $1,300,000, though that estimate could be soft.


Through the Princeton expert's research with assistance from staff and the Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute, it was determined that the Marciana Columbus letter was the same as one held in a privately owned library in the U.S. Among the identifying features was the exact location of certain sewing holes that were in the Marciana Library copy and also the one in the U.S. collection. That copy was sold to the private collector by an American dealer in 2004. Neither has been identified by ICE but authorities believe they were innocent buyers, especially since there was no public knowledge that the Marciana copy was missing at that time. ICE pointed out that the collector “cooperated with the investigation,” and agreed to return it to the rightful owner. Evidently, the wheels of returning the item turn slowly as, although it was all understood in 2020, the letter was finally returned to the Marciana Library just a few weeks ago.


ICE Deputy Director Patrick J. Lechleitner went to Rome to effect the return. He issued the following statement: “It is my pleasure to be here to celebrate the return of this important artifact to its rightful owners — the people of Italy — and I want to commend our HSI Attaché Rome office for their excellent cooperation with our international colleagues, as well as HSI Wilmington for their extraordinary work in identifying, tracking down, recovering and returning the collection of Columbus letters. This is the fourth original edition of this letter stolen over the past decades and we could not be happier to return it. Italy and the United States maintain a solid partnership, particularly on law enforcement issues; from investigating narcotics trafficking and disrupting money laundering networks to combating cybercrime and dismantling organized crime, we are more than allies and friends — we are full partners in the fight against crime.”

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