The letter, which the explorer wrote in 1493, was stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona in 2011 and later sold for over $1 million. On Wednesday night, U.S. Attorney David Weiss, of the District of Delaware, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials returned the letter in a ceremony at the Washington residence of the Spanish ambassador to the United States.
According to the Justice Department, the odyssey leading to the letter’s return began shortly after it was stolen, after authorities in Delaware received a tip that original copies of the Columbus document had been stolen from various libraries across Europe and replaced with forgeries.
The ensuing investigation revealed that the Columbus letter stolen from Spain was sold in November 2005 for €600,000 (approximately $709,568) by two Italian book dealers.
Seven years later, investigators accompanied by a Columbus document expert traveled to the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona and determined the purported Columbus Letter on display there was a fake. Less than a year later, in March 2013, the letter was sold again, for €900,000 (approximately $1.06 million).
Investigators were able to find the unidentified buyer, and after extensive negotiations, the individual agreed to turn the letter over to authorities. In March 2014, the document expert who identified the fake in Barcelona concluded the letter the authorities had was “beyond all doubt” the original stolen from the National Library of Catalonia.
Subsequent imaging tests revealed, among other things, the probable use of a chemical agent to bleach the ink of National Library of Catalonia’s stamp, and that the paper fibers of the Catalonia Plannck II Columbus Letter had been disturbed from their original state where the stamps were previously located.
The case is still under investigation, but the return of the document Wednesday night was hailed as a milestone by all concerned.
“The recovery of this Plannck II Columbus Letter on behalf of the Spanish government exemplifies … the close coordination that exists between American and foreign law enforcement agencies,” Weiss said. “We are truly honored to return this historically important document back to Spain – its rightful owner.”
For his part, Ambassador Pedro Morenés said the return of the document is testament to “the ties that bind the United States and Spain together.”
“The cooperation between Homeland Security Investigations and special units of the Guardia Civil has born great fruit in ensuring the return of stolen cultural property to Spain,” Morenés said.