Stolen Christopher Columbus Letter Returned to Italy

The Plannck Christopher Columbus letter was found bound in a book at the U.S. Library of Congress.
The Plannck Columbus letter was found bound in a book at the U.S. Library of Congress. It was printed by Stephan Plannck. (Image credit: U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement)

He sailed the ocean blue in 1492, and on his journey home in 1493, Christopher Columbus wrote of his voyage in a letter to his patrons, the royal husband-and-wife team Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain.

Now, a stolen copy of the letter that had been donated to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., was returned to its rightful owner, the Italian government, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced on May 18.

"Preserving records and chronicles of our past, like this letter, is of utmost importance not only to the special agents who investigate these crimes, but to the global community at large," Dan Ragsdale, deputy director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), said in a statement. [Top 5 Misconceptions About Christopher Columbus]

The Columbus letter

Columbus supposedly wrote of his voyage while still on the high seas in February 1493; the letter is dated to a 10-day stint he spent in Lisbon on his way back to Spain.

Printed copies of the letter, in its various editions (11 editions were published in 1493 and six more between 1494 and 1497), spread news of the New World throughout Europe.

No more than 80 surviving copies of the editions of Columbus' letter exist today. One edition, known as Plannck II for the original printer, was stolen on an unknown date from the Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, and was replaced with a forgery. The original was then donated to the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004.

The Plannck II investigation

After receiving information in 2012 that a "Plannck II" edition Columbus letter had been stolen from the Riccardiana Library and had been given to the Library of Congress, the Department of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) notified Italian law enforcement.

In a joint American-Italian investigation, the Riccardiana Library's Plannck II Columbus letter was determined to be a forgery — evidence such as the lack of an original library stamp and mismatched stitching patterns led to this conclusion.

The letter residing at the Library of Congress was proven to be the original Plannck II from the library in Florence when experts analyzing the document found evidence of chemical bleach — used to remove the Riccardiana Library's stamp.

U.S. Attorney for the District of Delaware Charles M. Oberly III, commended the joint task force on the letter's return, "given the historical significance of this document." 

"Documents such as the 'Plannck II' Columbus Letter are of significant cultural value, as they provide historical facts about critical events in world history," Oberly said in the statement. "We are humbled to return this historic document back to its home country."

The mystery of how the letter was stolen, replaced with a forgery and disguised before being donated to the Library of Congress is still being investigated.

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Kacey Deamer
Staff Writer
Kacey Deamer is a journalist for Live Science, covering planet earth and innovation. She has previously reported for Mother Jones, the Reporter's Committee for Freedom of the Press, Neon Tommy and more. After completing her undergraduate degree in journalism and environmental studies at Ithaca College, Kacey pursued her master's in Specialized Journalism: Climate Change at USC Annenberg. Follow Kacey on Twitter.