Update on Stolen Christopher Columbus Letter



Last year, the Security Section wrote a piece on a 525-year-old Christopher Columbus letter that was missing from the Vatican Library. Unbeknownst to them, a forgery lived in its place for decades. Last week, the United States returned the 1943 letter to the Vatican. However, investigators still have no answers regarding who stole the letter or how the theft occurred.


Read more at:

New York Times

Smithsonian Magazine 

Voice of American News 

Washington Post


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. “Christopher Columbus.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-2923-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

French Prosecutors Seek Sentences of up to Seven Years for Hungarian Map Thieves

“A New Map of Ancient Gaul or or Gallia Transalpina,” from David Rumsey Map Collection

Yesterday, prosecutors in France announced that they are seeking sentences of up to seven years for seven suspects who devised a scheme to steal rare and antique maps from libraries across France. The suspects are reportedly Hungarian nationals who cut the maps out of atlases during visits to libraries from 2011-2013. Over 100 maps, including several with stamps of the Toulouse Library, were found by Hungarian customs officers when they inspected the car of Andras Katona, one of the suspects. The total value of the crime is estimated to be four million Euros. For more information about this case, read this article from Expatica or this French-language article from Ouest-France.

The Plight of Cultural Heritage Objects at the Hands of Transnational Terrorist Networks

The rise of Daesh in Syria and Iraq, and the spread of Daesh and Al Qaeda affiliated groups throughout the Middle East and North Africa, has resulted in a great deal of harm done to uncountable numbers of objects of enduring cultural value. The damage is being done in two principle ways.

Interior of the Library, University of Mosul. From the Independent online

First, these groups are destroying cultural sites, libraries, archives, and museums because they deem these sites to be affronts to the society they are attempting to create. There are several examples that have been reported, such as the Al Mahdi case in Mali, the destruction of the library at the University of Mosul, and the numerous cultural heritage sites, including Palmyra and Nimrud, that have been destroyed by Daesh.

The second way damage is being done is via looting of cultural heritage objects that are then sold to collectors, sometimes by seemingly reputable dealers, in order to finance terrorist groups. Just this week, on March 26, two Spanish antiquities dealers, one named as Jaume Bagot and one yet unnamed, have been arrested and charged with financing terrorist activities by providing a licit front for the illegal sale of antiquities looted from Libya and Egypt. A great deal of news is still coming out of Spain about this subject and the story will be developing over the next several months.

Various governmental organizations, national and international, have recently been addressing the problem of looted cultural artifacts being used to fund terrorist activities. US Homeland Security and law enforcement and prosecutors in New York have made strides to combat looted antiquities trafficking resulting in several seizures of materials already. The UN and EU hosted a conference on March 20-21 entitled, “Engaging the European Art Market in the fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property” to develop a cooperative approach with players in the art and antiquities markets in Europe to stem looting from conflict zones. The EU has also proposed new restrictions on the import of antiquarian books, prints, and manuscripts in an effort to combat smuggling of looted materials (links to a PDF). Some groups, including ViaLibri and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers have expressed their concerns over the proposed regulations because of the consequences to the licit rare books and manuscripts trade. These points of view are something for those interested in combating looting to consider if there is an effort to have a cooperative approach to stemming the flow of smuggled goods through international art and antiquities markets.

Segment of an Antiquities Coalition infographic about conflict antiquities financing terrorist activities

The body of research about cultural property destruction in the name of terrorism is rapidly growing and one can find a great deal that has been produced in the last 3-5 years. One particular source is the Antiquities Coalition, an NGO with a mission to combat “cultural racketeering.” They recently featured a three part blog series about the trade in looted antiquities. They also have a variety of resources for those interested in combating crimes against cultural heritage, including infographics with jarring statistics about how much Daesh and similar groups can finance with just a few sales of looted artifacts and how the process of looting and garnering money from the proceeds was institutionalized by Daesh as a formal operation of their group.

The Antiquities Coalition is certainly not the only source of information. They are one of many that archivists, special collections librarians, and those who work with cultural heritage should be aware of. By being aware of how different groups across the globe are fighting against the illicit trafficking of cultural heritage objects, we can contribute to the effort and ensure that our institutions know the provenance of the cultural heritage objects we are acquiring.

Trust is a Security Issue. And a Donor Issue. And a Researcher Issue.

A few weeks back, Price Waterhouse Cooper issued a new section of their Consumer Intelligence Series, an ongoing set of studies on different aspects of what influences consumer behavior, specifically in transactions that put something of theirs at risk. This section is a report on the consumers’ trust of businesses. Before dismissing the report on the basis that the study is of businesses, consider that standard practice for such reports, absent any special parameters, is to apply the term to nonprofits, government, and small businesses (including heritage organizations not included in some other classification) are considered businesses for the purposes of such studies. In the terms of the survey, consumer refers to those served in some way by the business.

The analysis included with this particular study emphasized terminology used in institutions that deal in financial transactions, but the ubiquity of cyber networks in general, and the blurring of lines between the primary activities of institutions that handle transactions of any type, (one of the Equifax breaches and the infamous Target breach were accomplished through attacks on third party vendors that did not exclusively deal with the financial side of things), justify a wide base of survey targets. The data was collected from a sample of individuals from different fields, and the questions included both specific types of transactions and general dealings with data used by the institutions.

One part of this study focused particularly on the subject of trust and its connection to security practices. This is not surprising for financial issues. Consumers expect to trust the security of the systems that will handle their data. As archivists, we also confront trust issues. We must assure donors that their information will be handled with care and the donors expect a repository to be a place with excellent security. Researchers also expect the records to come from a secure source, one that can offer assurances as to the quality of the research material as evidence. Additionally, an increasing amount of archival research, along with business transactions that may accompany such research (such as payments for archival services), is carried out across cyberspace.

The questions we must ask ourselves are what would happen if donors and researchers had no trust in our institutions’ security, and how do we establish and maintain that trust? The questions are somewhat rhetorical here, as the answer to the first is obvious, (they leave us), while the second is complicated enough that it is difficult to answer without more information. We do ask you to keep them in mind as we relay a few of the findings of the study to you:

  • 69% of respondents believe most companies that handle sensitive data are vulnerable to hacks/cyberattacks.
  • Only 25% felt that their sensitive personal data is handled securely by most companies that they give it to.
  • More believe that their email or social media accounts will be hacked in the coming year than believe a flight will be cancelled or that they will be in even a small automobile accident.
  • Very few believe they have complete control over their own personal information, while the vast majority specifically feel private business, as opposed to government, will do the best job of providing security.

The report closes with information that it feels is actionable, stating 92% of respondents say that companies should be proactive when it comes to protecting data, with most saying it is the organization collecting the data that has responsibility for its security. 72% thought the government unable to protect sensitive information and 70% believing it unable to assure fair use of such information.

In the final analysis, the vast majority of respondents stated they would not do business with someone they did not trust. They also feared many of the proposed solutions to help organizations establish better security would come at the expense of consumers, who in the end wants to be part of controlling their own sensitive data. As we said earlier, for the purpose of the survey, consumer refers to those served in some way by the business. In archives that could be donors, researchers, a dedicated community, or others. [When we decide how we will provide security, what stakeholders do we consult?] Fewer than 25% of those studied listed nonprofits, information technology, or government as trusted institutions.

The report gave a “call to action” and a bottom line summary. These stated that a company should make cybersecurity and privacy a high priority, “putting cybersecurity and customers’ privacy at the forefront” and “backing it with proven security tactics.”

While much of the report clearly reflects terms and goals associated with for-profit business, the majority has to do simply with whether intended stakeholders will trust an organization with their records and other information. Security is the issue. This is true with paper documents. In this world of constant assault on the security of digital information, that is to say the vast, vast majority of recorded information, it makes taking new, and in many cases radically different, steps to not only secure that which is entrusted to us, but to demonstrate we have done so.


The report can be found here: