Third Stolen Columbus Letter Returned to the Vatican


A third stolen letter written by Christopher Columbus was returned to the Vatican today during a repatriation ceremony at the Vatican Library in Vatican City. The letter had been stolen and later purchased by an art collector for $875,000.

“This morning’s ceremony – the product of a seven-year investigation – is an example of the close ties between the United States and the Holy See, and the special cooperation between our respective law enforcement agencies,” U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Callista Gingrich said.

“It also highlights the remarkable dedication of Homeland Security special agents and
U.S. Department of Justice attorneys, who work diligently to recover and return stolen cultural property from around the world,” she added.

“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 home.”

The December 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. It is not known exactly when but at some point, the letter was stolen and replaced with a forged copy.

After receiving a tip that the letter was stolen and replaced with a fake, law enforcement was able to track the original letter down to a private art collection in Atlanta, Georgia. Authorities were able to determine that the private art collector purchased the original letter in February 2004 for $875,000. That transaction occurred in good faith according to investigators.

An expert was subsequently allowed to inspect both the letter in Atlanta and the version in the Vatican’s possession. They were able to determine that the letter located in Atlanta was in fact the original. The letter’s owner, upon learning of the analysis, relinquished title and interest in the Columbus Letter to the Vatican.

The effort marked the third time in two years law enforcement officials in the U.S. were able to locate and repatriate letters written by the Italian explorer to their original owners.

“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 Homeland Security Investigations Philadelphia Special Agent in Charge Marlon V. Miller.

“Let this repatriation signal our continued commitment to these investigations, and serve as a testament to our partnerships, both here and abroad.”

HSI is a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that investigates cross-border criminal activity, including international art and antiquity theft.

“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,” said Vatican Librarian Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès.

Photo by ICE