MayflowerWILMINGTON, Delaware — U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigation 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.

The return marks the second Columbus letter to be returned this months and the third in recent 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 cataloged 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.

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