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.