Last Thursday, a letter written in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, originally stolen from the Vatican Library but recently discovered, was returned to the Holy See by the United States.

Still at sea returning to Europe in February of 1493, Christopher Columbus penned a letter  detailing his findings and first impressions of the Caribbean islands to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. Originally written in Spanish, it was translated to Latin and a copy printed in Rome eventually made its way to the Vatican Library in 1921.

It’s known as the Columbus letter, eight pages in length and about the size of a small journal. In 2010, an American rare manuscript expert studied the Vatican’s copy of the Columbus letter and suspected it was a forgery as the page stitching marks did not match the binding. A year later in 2011, the same expert received a copy of a Columbus letter and deemed it to be authentic.

The letter he deemed authentic turned out to be a perfect match to the binding marks of copy in the Vatican Library. The expert notified art investigators at the Department of Homeland Security who worked with Vatican inspectors and rare manuscript experts to conclude that a some point the original letter was stolen and a forgery left in its place.

Last Thursday, U.S. ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich returned the letter in a handover ceremony in a frescoed room of the Vatican Library: “we are returning it to its rightful owner.”

Vatican’s archivist and librarian, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, was surprised to learn their copy was a forgery, and have concluded they may never discover who was the culprit behind it.

“I must admit it took us rather by surprise. We do not know exactly when the substitution took place. We will probably never know who the forger was.”

In 2004, the authentic letter was purchased by the late collector David Parsons for $875,000. After discovering it was stolen, his wife Mary Parsons voluntarily returned it to the Vatican saying it was what David “would have wanted.” Today it is worth about $1.2 million according to officials at the handover ceremony. You can read an English translation of the Columbus Letter here.

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