The United States has returned to Italy a letter written by Christopher Columbus in 1493. A squad of art investigators discovered the letter had been stolen decades ago.
The eight-page letter, in which Columbus announced his discovery of the New World to Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, described islands “full of the greatest variety of trees reaching to the stars.”
The letter became almost as well-traveled as its famous author.
Fulvio Stacchetti, head of Florence’s Riccardiana library, said the letter was replaced by a forgery, probably in 1950–1951, when Riccardiana lent the original to national library authorities in Rome.
The letter was sold to a rare book collector in Switzerland in 1990, then purchased by another collector at a 1992 auction in New York.
Eventually, the letter ended up in Washington, when it was bequeathed by the estate of its final owner to the Library of Congress in 2004. That owner and the Library of Congress acquired it in good faith, believing its provenance was legitimate, U.S. officials said.
Under U.S. law, stolen cultural property must be returned to its rightful owners.
The letter’s return voyage was celebrated at a news conference, held by Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini with U.S. Ambassador John Phillips by his side.
“Five hundred years later, [the letter] did the same trip [as Columbus], round trip,” Franceschini said.
Italy’s Carabinieri art squad estimates the letter’s value at 1 million euros ($1.13 million).
The U.S. works closely with international colleagues to restore cultural heritage items to their countries of origin.
This article draws on reports from the Associated Press.