500-Year-Old Letter Written by Christopher Columbus Recently Found

A fifteenth-century letter written by Christopher Columbus was recently discovered in a private collection in the U.S.  The letter was stolen from the Vatican Apostolic Library in the early 1930s; a forgery has been living in the place of the original for around 90 years.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Robert Parsons, a private collector, bought the letter for $875,000 in 2004.  The Assistant U.S. Attorney found that Parsons purchased the document in good faith from a rare book dealer in New York.   


The letter, written to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain in 1493, Columbus’ royal patrons, describes one of his early expedition to the Americas.  It details his encounters with people from the different Caribbean Islands, as well as, his account of the landscapes, geography, and waterways.  It was later printed and published.  According to the court record, there are about 80 copies, the one in Parson’s collection was among the oldest, according to the New York Times.   

Pope Benedict XV acquired the letter in the 1920s.  It once belonged to Roman bibliophile Gian Francesco De Rossi.  In 1934, it was cataloged, according to The Telegraph, and was replaced by a fake around that time.  The U.S. Department of Homeland Security became aware that there was something questionable about the letter after Mr. Parson had it authenticated.   The Vatican was unaware that the document in their holding was a forgery until this year, and Mr. Parson did not know that his letter was stolen property when he purchased it, according to the court record.   


The history surrounding this particular theft remains an enigma, even now after the letter has been returned to the Library.  This is the second instance where a stolen letter has been returned to the Vatican.  In 2016, a letter written by Christopher Columbus was returned to Rome after being found in the collection at the Library of Congress, according to the New York Times.   

The resurfacing of this letter comes at an interesting time in American history as cities across the States debate statues and landmarks which commemorate controversial historical figures and events, such as with the removing of Confederate statues.  The legacy of Columbus and his brutal conduct toward the people he encountered on his explorations subsequently has led to many discussions surrounding the removal of his statue and his name from landmarks.


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. “The Santa Maria, flagship of Christopher Columbus.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e1-e978-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
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. 1777 – 1890. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47d9-3c90-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99 

Legal Expert Explains Why Lack of Charges in Hobby Lobby Case is not as Bad as it Seems

Recently, on the ArtNet News site, Leila Amineddoleh, the art and cultural heritage lawyer who provided expert advice to the Eastern District of New York on the Hobby Lobby case, explained why the government made a good decision by not trying to seek criminal charges against Hobby Lobby or the company’s president, Steve Green, for their role in purchasing illegally-looted artifacts from Iraq. Aside from being the president of Hobby Lobby, Steve Green is also chair of the board of directors for a museum dedicated to the Bible, which is currently under construction. Hobby Lobby purchased the artifacts, including clay tablets and bullae, via middlemen in the United Arab Emirates for inclusion in the Museum of the Bible.

After an investigation by Federal officials, Hobby Lobby agreed to pay a $3 million fine, relinquish the artifacts, and review their practices for acquiring cultural heritage objects in the future. According to Amineddoleh, there have been many who have lamented the fact that prosecutors opted not to file criminal charges. In a thoughtful piece for artnet, Amineddoleh explains the challenges faced by the Eastern District of New York if they were to have pursued criminal charges against Hobby Lobby. This is a great inside look at what law enforcement and the criminal justice system must consider in the quest to protect cultural heritage objects.

Archives Security in the Cyberage

SAA Security Section member Jim Havron pointed us to two recent articles about a facet of security that we don’t often think about, but could have massive implications for archives and special collections libraries – cybersecurity.

The first, from Security Week, notes that simply running out-of-date software puts a wide variety of firms, including archives and similar cultural heritage institutions, at risk of a data breach. And many of us, upwards of 50% according to the article, are running software that is not up-to-date. A simple fix of updating software is a great first step in securing your electronic assets.

Havron noted in his correspondence that more and more “non-computer” technologies are integrated into the internet of things and one must be aware of the fact that the unpatched software of fire alarms, electronic locks, and other security technology could render those items vulnerable to an attack. As he asked rhetorically, “does your institution have controlled access or fire alarms as part of its security?”

A second article, from info security, mentions the threat of ransomware attacks sent through e-mail. As Havron noted is his correspondence, “It isn’t just for ‘digital archivists’ or ‘electronic records’ anymore. Access points on the first Wannacry attack [the massive ransomware attack in May 2017 that infected over 230,000 computers] included security cameras, refrigerators, baby monitors, and thermostats. If you have any of these things (e.g. environmental controls), there is risk.”

When thinking about security at your institution, it isn’t only about keeping thieves from pilfering dog tags or returning old manuscripts to their rightful owner, it is also about protecting all of your electronic assets from the wide array of cyber threats that exist. If you have any specific questions for Jim Havron about cyber security in archives and cultural heritage institutions, feel free to e-mail him: havron@cyberculturalheritage.com.

Historian Caught Stealing Dog Tags from National Archives

Historian Antonin DeHays was charged in Federal court this week with stealing dog tags of deceased WWII veterans from the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. He sold many of the dog tags on eBay. He even passed off a stolen dog tag that belonged to a Tuskegee Airman as being from his personal collection and donated it to the Military Aviation Museum in exchange for a chance to sit in the cockpit of a Spitfire airplane.

Two weeks after DeHays visited the National Archives at College Park on May 12 this year, staff discovered that dozens of dog tags were missing from the box DeHays had looked at for nearly a half-hour earlier in the month. On June 9, investigators executed a search warrant at his home and found six dog tags along with other documents that belonged to the National Archives.

If convicted, DeHays faces up to ten years in prison for his crimes.

You can find the official U.S. Department of Justice press release about this case here and you can read more about this story from the Washington Post. For more about the NARA Archival Recovery Program, follow their Facebook page.