Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2018 Issue

Stolen Columbus Letter Returned to its Home

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The Columbus Letter is returned (Vatican Library Photo).

Columbus has sailed back home, in a manner of speaking. A Columbus Letter, one of the high points of any collection of Americana, has been returned to its rightful home. That home is in the Vatican.

 

A Columbus Letter is a copy of the letter written by the notable explorer to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, describing his discovery, then known as the New World, today as America. The Royals had sponsored Christopher Columbus' journey so he had to tell them what he found. He described it in glowing terms, easily worth their investment.

 

There were numerous printings in the first few years after his return. They are in several languages. All printings were short runs. Around 80 copies in total are known to have survived. This is an early one in Latin, printed in Rome by Stephan Plannack in 1493. Any one of these letters is worth a large amount of money.

 

This particular copy, just returned to the Vatican, also made the journey to the New World. Exactly how is unknown, and it certainly was not sponsored by any authorities. It was pilfered from the Vatican Library, though no one knows for certain when, how or by whom. A very good forgery was placed in the collection in its stead, so no one would be any wiser. The original was certainly there in 1921. That's when the Vatican received it. Previously, it was owned by Gian Francesco De Rossi. De Rossi's wife donated his collection to the Jesuits, who in turn gave it to the Pope in 1921. In 2004, it was purchased by collector Robert Parsons, of Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.A., from a New York dealer. That leaves a lot of time in between. Parsons, who was an innocent buyer, reportedly paid $875,000 for it.

 

Where the book dealer obtained it has not been clearly identified, though reportedly it came from Massimo de Caro. De Caro, who is currently serving a seven-year sentence for book theft, is one of the most notorious book thieves in history. Somehow, through political connections, he was placed in charge of the Girolamini Library, an ancient church library in Naples. This was the quintessential example of putting a fox in charge of the hen house. De Caro had a questionable reputation, but not on the level of what was revealed in 2012. He is believed to have taken as many as thousands of books from the library under his care, which he sold through connections all over the world, including a cooperative German auction house.

 

However, while buying a book from De Caro in the current decade would be a giveaway, the dealer must have bought the Columbus Letter no later than 2004, when De Caro's reputation was not yet made. Interestingly, one of De Caro's modes of operation was to have expert forgeries made, which he pawned off as the real thing. In this case, if De Caro is the guilty party, instead of selling the forgery, he used it as a substitute for the real copy. He would have expected this would reduce the likelihood that the forgery would ever be examined and revealed, leaving his theft undiscovered.

 

In 2013, Parsons had an American expert in rare manuscripts examine his copy. As the thief evidently assumed would happen, he found it to be authentic. However, the same expert had examined the Vatican copy a year earlier and was suspicious. It was evidently an exceptionally good forgery, but one thing wasn't quite right. The stitching in the binding did not quite match up with the marks in the pamphlet. There were other factors as well. However, the stitching of Parsons' copy did match up with the binding from the Vatican copy.

 

Robert Parsons died in 2014, aware that it might be stolen. It was, naturally, disappointing to him. With final confirmation that it was the Vatican copy, Mrs. Parsons sadly consented to its return. On June 14, Callista Gingrich, U. S. Ambassador to the Vatican, presented the letter to the Vatican Library. Like Columbus himself, his letter has returned to his homeland after its long journey to the New World. Unlike Columbus, it will never be able to tell us how it got there in the first place.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.

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