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June 14, 2018Philadelphia, PA, United StatesCultural Property, Art and Antiquities Investigations

Third stolen Christopher Columbus letter returned to the Vatican

WILMINGTON, Delaware — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Homeland Security Investigation (HSI) Philadelphia special agents and U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware returned Thursday a more than 500-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his discoveries in the Americas to the Vatican during a repatriation ceremony at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (the “Vatican Library) in Vatican City. The letter, originally written in 1493, was stolen from the Vatican Library and later sold in 2004 for approximately $875,000. This is the third Christopher Columbus’ letter repatriation in the past two years.

In or around Dec. 1921, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus donated a copy of the Columbus Letter (along with thousands of other rare books and manuscripts) to Pope Benedict XV. The Columbus Letter was preserved in the Vatican Library. After receiving a copy of the Columbus Letter, at no time did the Vatican City State or the Vatican Library relinquish title to this document. In or around 1934, a detailed description of the Vatican Library’s copy of the Columbus Letter was catalogued in the census copies of the standard bibliography of fifteenth-century printing, otherwise known as the Gesamtkatalog der Wiegendrucke (volume VI, Leipzig, 1934, no. 7177). At an unknown time and date, the Columbus Letter was stolen from the Vatican Library and replaced with a forgery, which was designed to appear like the original letter.

Like the prior recovered letters, the return of the Vatican’s Columbus Letter followed a multi-year joint investigation conducted by HSI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware. After receiving a tip that the Vatican Library’s letter was stolen and replaced with a forgery, law enforcement determined that the original letter was located in a private art collector’s personal collection in Atlanta, Georgia. The investigation determined that this individual purchased the stolen Columbus Letter in good faith during a February 2004 transaction worth $875,000. 

In April of 2017, following negotiations between U.S. Attorney’s Office and representatives for the individual in possession of the letter, the parties agreed to permit a subject matter expert to inspect and compare both the Columbus Letter in Atlanta against a copy of the Columbus Letter in the Vatican Library’s possession. The expert determined that the Columbus Letter located in Atlanta was, in fact, the original Columbus Letter that belonged to the Vatican Library, and that the copy in the Vatican Library’s possession was a forgery. Following this analysis, the person in possession of the Columbus Letter in Atlanta voluntarily agreed to relinquish title and interest in the Columbus Letter.

"Homeland Security Investigations is dedicated to investigating those who pilfer history's most important records and chronicles and retuning those antiquities, like this Columbus Letter, back to their rightful owner nations. This effort is of utmost importance, not only to the special agents who investigate these crimes, but to the global community at large,” said Marlon V. Miller, HSI Philadelphia Special Agent in Charge. "Let this repatriation signal our continued commitment to these investigations, and serve as a testament to our partnerships, both here and abroad."

“This marks the third time in two years that agents from HSI, along with prosecutors from the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, have partnered to return these precious letters documenting Columbus’ journey back to their rightful home. It is only through our strong federal law enforcement partnerships that we are able to combat these cross-border crimes that rob every one of these world treasures. I truly commend the efforts of everyone involved in this case,” stated U.S. Attorney Weiss.

Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich stated, “The Columbus Letter, written in 1493, is a priceless piece of cultural history. I am honored to return this remarkable letter to the Vatican Library – its rightful owner.

Vatican Librarian Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès shared, “…We are extremely grateful to be able to reinsert this volume in its rightful place in De Rossi’s collection, where it will remain at the disposal of the researchers who come from around the world to study the collections of the Vatican Library.”

The case is being investigated by HSI and is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie M. McCall.

Updated: 03/23/2021