Fake old books are rare, as it’s very expensive, and thus hardly profitable to forge one. Yet there are a few documents that are worth the effort—the letter Columbus sent to the Court of Spain when returning from his first voyage is one of them. Christie's sold a copy last month for $3.9 million (fee included). Worth forging, indeed—or stealing.
Columbus wrote: “I discovered many islands inhabited by numerous people. I took possession of all of them for our most fortunate King...” A few words for man, but a giant leap for mankind. “The letter was written in Spanish and sent to Rome, where it was printed in Latin by Stephan Plannck,” the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History reads. “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.” Spain had to make sure the Pope and all European powers would acknowledge the discovery. Consequently, this incredible 8-page document was profusely printed and distributed all over Europe. There are very few copies left—around 30 in various institutions worldwide, and two or three in private hands (there’s only one known copy in Spanish, kept at the New York Public Library). Christies’ sold a copy last month for $3.9 million. It was listed in their catalogue as follows: “COLUMBUS, Christopher (1451-1506). Epistola Christofori Colom: cui etas nostra multu[m] debet: de Insulis Indie supra Gangem nuper inve[n]tis. Translated by Leandro di Cosco. [Rome: Stephan Plannck, after 29 April 1493.]” Then the description reads: “The Columbus Letter is a slim, ephemeral document which was printed to convey the news of the moment; extremely few copies survive outside of institutional libraries. Not since 1966, in the Thomas W. Streeter sale has a copy been offered at auction which has provenance dating back over 50 years.” The copy Christie’s sold the other day came from an anonymous private collection in Switzerland—and they were very careful this time.
“The last time Christie’s sold a copy (...) was in 1992, and it did not end well. It later emerged that the document had been stolen, and it was eventually repatriated to Italy,” Julia Jacobs underlines in the New York Times (Oct. 2023). “That wasn’t the only one,” she adds. “Since the early 1990s, four other examples of the Latin-translated document that came on the market were discovered to have been stolen...” A library in Fermo, Italy, claimed a copy sold by Sotheby’s in 1992 as stolen, and retrieved it. In July 2023, the US returned a copy that ”was revealed to have been stolen some time between 1985 and 1988, likely from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, the historic public library in Venice,” The Guardian reads. “It was in the possession of a private collector from Texas, who said he obtained it in 2003 from a rare book dealer.” Paul Needham, an old book expert who had previously seen the letter, was able to identify it thanks to “the unique position of the sewing holes from when it was originally bound in a book.” Talk about the importance of details! The original had been copied then replaced by a fake letter. All these years, the Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence, “unknowingly displayed a forged copy.” Forgery can be an art too. And it wasn’t the only occurrence. At least four other letters were stolen and replaced by fake copies over the years in various libraries. Now, the one sold by Christies’ last month is allegedly clean. “The auction house said it had spent months performing due diligence on this volume,” Julia Jacobs states, before quoting Jay Dillon, a rare book expert: “Christie’s has done its homework.” Nevertheless, no one knows about the whereabouts of this copy before it ended up in Switzerland.
Columbus’s achievement is highly criticized nowadays—the discoverer has become a murderer and a thief. He died some 500 years ago, and some are still spitting at his statues. The rewriting of history has started. Heroes turn villains as we judge people from the 15th century according to our current standards. Some say it’s justice—yet it would be wise for everyone to “do their homework” over this delicate topic. Some versions of history that are currently displayed might be nothing but another forgery.