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Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations
05/18/2016

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ICE returns 1493 Columbus letter to Italy

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ROME – A 1493 copy of Christopher Columbus' letter describing his discoveries in the Americas was returned Wednesday to the government of Italy by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI). An investigation conducted by HSI revealed that the letter, bound in a volume, was stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, at an unknown time and later donated to the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.

"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."

After Columbus' return to Europe, his letters to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were copied by printers around Europe to spread the news of Spain's findings in the new world. The copy returned today was printed by Stephan Plannck, and is known as the Plannck II Columbus letter.

The investigation began in 2012 when HSI special agents received a tip that the Plannck II letter in the Riccardiana Library had been replaced with a forgery. After notifying Italian law enforcement of the possible theft, HSI agents coordinated the examination of the letter by subject matter experts, including experts from the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Analysis of the letter revealed the presence of bleach, likely used to remove the Riccardiana Library's stamp from the volume.

"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."

HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illicit importation and distribution of cultural property, as well as the illegal trafficking of artwork, specializing in recovering works that have been reported lost or stolen. HSI's International Operations, through its 62 attaché offices in 46 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations.

HSI's specially trained investigators assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also train investigators from other nations and agencies to investigate crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace. Those involved in the illicit trafficking of cultural property, art and antiquities can face prison terms of up to 20 years, fines and possible restitution to purchasers of the items.

Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 7,500 items to more than 30 countries.

Learn more about HSI's cultural property, art and antiquities investigations. Members of the public who have information about suspected stolen cultural property are urged to call the toll-free tip line at 1-866-DHS-2-ICE or to complete the online tip form.

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Last Reviewed/Updated: 05/23/2016