U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced Jan. 23 that, for the fourth time since 2018, they have recovered a more than 500-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his discoveries in the Americas to the government of Italy.
This announcement follows a court filing in the District of Delaware, which ordered the return of this historic document to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, Italy. This letter, commonly known as a Plannck I edition, or “Columbus Letter-Plannck I,” is exceptionally rare because this first edition only mentions the King of Spain, while the second edition, commonly known as Plannck II, acknowledges both the King and Queen of Spain. This Columbus Letter-Plannck I is valued at more than $1.3 million.
Following a lengthy investigation by ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware and the Italian Carabinieri Command for Protection of Cultural Heritage, investigators determined that, sometime in or around 1875, the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana in Venice, Italy acquired a copy of the Columbus Letter-Plannck I, described above. At an unknown time between 1985 and 1988, the Columbus Letter-Plannck I was stolen from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.
Unlike prior recovered Columbus letters, this Columbus Letter-Plannck I was not replaced with a forgery, but instead was missing from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana for decades. The investigation determined that, in May 2003, a collector acting in good faith unknowingly purchased the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana’s Columbus Letter-Plannck I letter from a rare book dealer in the U.S.
In 2019, following negotiations between the U.S. Attorney’s Office and representatives for the individual in possession of the letter, the parties agreed to permit Paul Needham from Princeton University to inspect the Columbus Letter-Plannck I, along with important evidence provided by the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. Needham’s inspection ultimately assisted investigators in determining that the Columbus Letter-Plannck I was, in fact, the stolen letter that belonged to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana. Accordingly, the individual in possession of the Columbus Letter-Plannck I voluntarily agreed to relinquish title and interest in the letter.
“We continue to be thankful for our strong law enforcement partnership with the government of Italy to combat cross-border crimes that bring stolen cultural property into the United States for sale,” said Weiss. “This recovery is an excellent example of international law enforcement collaboration resulting in the return of world treasurers to their rightful owners. I commend the efforts of those involved in this case, including Dr. Needham for his expertise in this field.”
“Culturally significant artifacts are assigned a monetary value in the world's marketplaces in which they are traded,” said William Walker, acting special agent in charge of HSI Philadelphia. “But the cultural and symbolic worth of these objects far surpasses any given dollar value to the nations to whom they rightfully belong. HSI is pleased that today's court action is a positive step toward returning this five-century old Christopher Columbus letter to the people of Italy.”
The case is being investigated by Special Agent Mark Olexa and Investigator Mario Coppola, HSI and is being prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Jamie M. McCall for the District of Delaware.