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July 19, 2023Rome, ItalyCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

HSI repatriates rare 15th century Columbus letter to Italy

Part of complex, multiyear investigation

ROME — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Deputy Director and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Director Patrick J. Lechleitner traveled to Rome to repatriate an original edition of a stolen 15th century Columbus letter to Italian officials on July 19. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) had collaborated with international partners and subject matter experts since September 2011 on this multifaceted international investigation.

“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,” said Lechleitner. “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.”

In March 1493, explorer Christopher Columbus wrote a letter announcing his discoveries to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had helped finance his New World voyage. The letter was sent to Rome, where it was printed in Latin as a pamphlet by Stephan Plannck, a prominent printer of the period, and distributed to libraries across Europe. The printer mistakenly left the queen’s name out of the pamphlet’s introduction (the edition called Plannck I) but quickly realized his error and reprinted the pamphlet, which included the queen’s name (the edition called Plannck II), a few days later.

In September 2011, HSI Wilmington received information pertaining to alleged forgeries of several 15th century, manually printed Latin editions of what are commonly known as the Columbus letter. As a result of the investigation to date, three Plannck II Columbus letters stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona; the Riccardiana Library in Florence; and the Vatican Apostolic Library in Vatican City were located by HSI Wilmington, seized and repatriated.

In June 2018, HSI Wilmington and HSI Rome requested that the rare book expert from Princeton University, whom they had worked with since the beginnings of the investigation, compile a full list of all known Columbus letters in Italy. HSI Wilmington was made aware of a copy of a Plannck I Columbus letter, formerly owned by the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana (“Marciana National Library”) in Venice, had been reported as missing during a physical inventory conducted in 1988. In September 2018, in coordination with HSI and the Italian Carabinieri, officials traveled to Venice and met with the curator at the Marciana National Library.

Based on the findings of the rare book expert and additional analysis conducted by staff from the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum Conservation Institute, it was determined that the Plannck I Columbus letter stolen from the Marciana National Library was likely the same Columbus letter in the collection of a privately owned library located in the United States. HSI worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware to contact the collector, who cooperated with the investigation, to recover the letter.

The plundering of historical and cultural artifacts is among the oldest forms of cross-border organized crime, and it is that cross-border aspect that gives HSI the ability to investigate these cases. U.S. customs laws give HSI the authority to take a leading role in investigating crimes involving the illicit importation, exportation and distribution of cultural property, art and antiquities. In support of this specific area, HSI created the Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities (CPAA) program, which helps protect and preserve the world’s cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations. Working with special agents in the field, CPAA conducts training and outreach, supports cultural property investigations (such as this one conducted by HSI Wilmington and HSI Rome), and enhances international relations by working with foreign governments to return their nation’s looted cultural heritage and stolen history.

Since 2007, HSI investigations have led to the repatriation of over 20,000 objects to more than 40 countries and institutions. The repatriated objects have included Nazi-looted art, French paintings, Egyptian sarcophagi, Italian sculpture, Roman coins, Greek vases, illuminated manuscripts, Mongolian and Chinese dinosaur fossils, and even human remains.

In fiscal year 2022, HSI’s CPAA program repatriated cultural property to more than 15 countries, including France, India, Iraq, Italy and Mali. Among the repatriated items were cuneiform tablets, religious artifacts and architectural drawings stolen from Jewish communities during the Holocaust.

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