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Justice News

Department of Justice
U.S. Attorney’s Office
District of Delaware

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Stolen Letter of Christopher Columbus' Historic Voyage To Americas Repatriated To Italian Government

WILMINGTON, Del. - Charles M. Oberly, III, United States Attorney for the District of Delaware, announced today that a historic letter dating from 1493 and detailing Christopher Columbus’ voyage to the Americas was repatriated back to Italy at a repatriation ceremony held at 11:00 a.m. CET at the Bibliotecha Angelica, in Rome, Italy.  Known as a “Plannck II” edition, this Columbus Letter had been stolen on an unknown date from a library in Florence, Italy, and subsequently donated to the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.  This theft and forgery was discovered in 2012, and today’s repatriation culminates joint Italian/U.S. efforts to return the original letter.[1]

“This repatriation is the result of the joint efforts of this office, HSI special agents assigned who are assigned to investigate cultural property theft, the Department of Justice Office of International Affairs, the Library of Congress, and the Carabinieri Tutela Patrimonio Culturale in Rome,” said U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly, III.  “I commend all parties for their efforts in producing this positive outcome – particularly given the historical significance of this document.  Documents such as the ‘Plannck II’ Columbus Letter are of significant cultural value as they provide historical facts about critical events in world history, and we are humbled to return this historic document back to its home country.”

“Preserving records and chronicles of our past, like this letter, is of utmost importance not only to the special agents who investigate these crimes, but to the global community at large,” said ICE Deputy Director Dan Ragsdale. “Today’s repatriation ceremony signals our continued commitment to these investigations and is a testament to our partnerships, both here and abroad.”

BACKGROUND

Christopher Columbus’s first transatlantic expedition left the harbor of Palos in Spain in three ships in August of 1492.  Columbus returned to Spain in March 1493, concluding his memorable voyage of discovery to the Americas.  Columbus’s report, in the form of a letter to his royal patrons Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, was written while still on the high seas in February 1493, and was reportedly dated when he arrived in Lisbon on March 4, 1493, where he stayed for approximately ten days before sailing home to Spain.  The letter was instrumental in spreading the news throughout Europe about Columbus’s voyage.[2]

Soon after Columbus’s arrival in Spain, printed versions of the letter began to appear and were issued across Western Europe, in Spain, Italy, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands.  Eleven editions were published in 1493 and six more editions were published between 1494 and 1497.  They are, however, all quite rare today.  Indeed, several of these editions survive in only a single copy, and there are believed to be no more than 80 surviving copies of all the various editions.  Two of the aforementioned editions of the Columbus Letter were published by Rome printer Stephan Plannck in 1493.  The editions are referred to as the Plannck I and Plannck II editions.

INVESTIGATION

In 2012, special agents with the Department of Homeland Security Investigations (“HSI”) received information that a “Plannck II” edition Christopher Columbus Letter had been stolen from the Riccardiana Library, located in Florence, Italy, and replaced with a forgery. The original “Plannck II” Columbus Letter, according to the source information, was believed to be located in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

After receiving this information, HSI notified Italian law enforcement about this development, and a joint American-Italian investigation commenced.  HSI agents, specializing in cultural property theft and based in Wilmington, Delaware, traveled to Florence, Italy to examine the suspected forgery. This inspection concluded that the Ricardiana Library’s “Plannck II” Columbus letter was a forgery.  The inspection determined, among other things, that the text of the forged letter was a high-quality photocopy, that there was no original library stamp from the Ricardiana Library, and that the stitching patterns did not match original stitching patterns for known “Plannck II” Columbus Letters.

The investigation next focused on the “Plannck II” Columbus Letter which was located at the Library of Congress.  This letter had previously been donated to the Library in 2004. Working closely with the Library’s staff, the letter was inspected by subject matter experts who concluded that this “Plannck II” Columbus Letter originally came from the Riccardiana Library.  The experts found, among other things, evidence that chemical bleach had been used to remove the Ricardiana Library’s stamp, and that printed characters had been retouched to further disguise the letter’s provenance, or place of origin. 

This case was investigated by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations and Assistant United States Attorney Jamie M. McCall of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware. 

 


[1] The official title of the letter is Columbus, Christopher, Epistolae… De Insulis Indie supra Gangem nuper inventis (also listed as: Epistola de insulis nuper inventis), Rome, Stephan Plannck, 1493.

[2] B.W. Ife, Introduction to the Letters from America, (1992, 2002), Research at King’s College London, Online at http://www.ems.kcl.ac.uk/content/pub/b002.html, last accessed May 9, 2016.

Updated May 18, 2016