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Stolen Columbus Letter Returned to Vatican


A detail of a page of an authentic 15th Century copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus as displayed at the Vatican, Thursday, June 14, 2018. The United States is returning to the Vatican Library a letter written by Christopher Columbus in 1493 announcing his discovery of the New World that was stolen and replaced with a forgery. (Tony Gentile/Pool Photo via AP)
Stolen Columbus Letter Returned to Vatican
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A 525-year-old copy of a letter by Christopher Columbus, stolen from the Vatican, was returned this week. An investigation by the United States Department of Homeland Security and the Vatican located the letter.

“We are returning it to its rightful owner,” said U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, Callista Gingrich, at a ceremony in the Vatican Library.

Columbus wrote the letter to the king and queen of Spain after discovering “The New World.” He described what he had found and requested money for another trip.

U.S. Ambassador Callista Gingrich, left, is photographed with Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues on the occasion of the presentation to the Vatican of an authentic 15th Century copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus.
U.S. Ambassador Callista Gingrich, left, is photographed with Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues on the occasion of the presentation to the Vatican of an authentic 15th Century copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus.

His original letter was written in Spanish. But several copies of a Latin translation were made to spread news of his discovery to the royal courts of Europe and the Pope.

One of the Latin letters, copied by Stephan Plannack in 1493, was put in the Vatican Library. Known as the Columbus Letter, it has eight pages, each about 18.5 cm by 12 cm.

In 2011, an American expert in rare manuscripts received a similar looking letter. After reviewing it, he decided that it was real.

The year before, the same expert had studied a Columbus Letter in the Vatican Library and suspected that it was a fake. One reason was that the stitching marks on the letter were not the same as those on the cover.

The letter in the United States, however, had the exact same stitching marks as the leather cover of the fake letter he had studied in the Vatican.

The expert, who was not identified, contacted Homeland Security art investigators, who began working with Vatican inspectors and rare book experts.

They believed that someone took the real letter out of its cover at the Vatican Library and replaced it with a fake one.

Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues is the Vatican’s chief librarian. He said, “We do not know exactly when the substitution took place. We will probably never know who the forger was.”

Their investigations found that Marino Massimo De Caro, a well known “Italian book thief”, had sold the real letter to a New York book dealer.

De Caro is serving a seven-year prison sentence in Italy for stealing about 4,000 ancient books and manuscripts from Italian libraries and private collections.

The late collector David Parsons bought the letter for $875,000 in 2004. After the investigations, his widow agreed to return the letter to the Vatican Library.

Officials said the letter is now worth about $1.2 million.

I’m Mario Ritter.

Philip Pullella reported this story for Reuters News Agency. Phil Dierking adapted the story for VOA Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

library –n. a place were books and other media are available for people to use and borrow

manuscript – n. the original copy of a play, book, piece of music, etc., before it has been printed

stitch – n. a piece of thread that is passed through a piece of material with a needle

leather – n. animal skin that is chemically treated to preserve it and that is used in making clothes, shoes, furniture, etc.

substitution –n. something that is used in place of something else

forger – n. someone who makes or copies (something, such as a document or signature) falsely in order to deceive someone

dealer –n. someone who sells something

widow – n. a woman whose husband has died

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