Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2016 Issue

Stolen Columbus Letter Found at the Library of Congress Returned

The Columbus Letter.

A stolen Columbus Letter, taken from an Italian Library, and eventually coming to reside at the U. S. Library of Congress, has made its way back home. At a ceremony in Rome, Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini couldn't help but note the irony – Like Columbus himself, "it is interesting how 500 years after the letter was written it has made the same trip back and forth from America." Presumably, improved security at the Riccardiana Library in Florence will prevent the letter from making a couple more round trips to America as Columbus did.

 

The Columbus Letter can justly be considered the founding document of America. Christopher Columbus "discovered" the New World in 1492, though he thought he had reached the Indies. After surveying the area, he left some of his men on Hispaniola Island and returned to Spain to report on his findings. On the way back, he composed this letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. He arrived in Lisbon on March 4, 1493, and ten days later he was back in Spain.

 

News of his discovery soon spread, and there was a demand for copies of his letter. The first printed version was in Spanish. Only one copy, at the New York Public Library, is known to survive. Several others quickly followed, including the Latin edition by Stephan Plannck in Rome. There was a first and a corrected version by Plannck. This is the corrected, or Plannck II edition. Both were published in 1493.

 

While some of the steps that took this copy of the Columbus Letter from Florence to Washington are known, there are gaps that remain a mystery. Among the unknowns are when, and by whom, the letter was taken from the Riccardiana Library. It makes its first traceable appearance when purchased by a collector in Switzerland in 1990. It was consigned to Christie's auction rooms in New York in 1992 where it sold to an anonymous buyer for $330,000. In 2004, it was bequeathed to the Library of Congress. The donor, likely the same as the earlier anonymous buyer, and the Library of Congress were confirmed by U. S. officials to have acted in good faith.

 

In 2012, the U. S. Department of Homeland Security received notification that a copy of Plannck II was missing from the Florence library. The letter had been kept in a volume with 42 other documents of incunabula. Its having gone missing was unrecognized because whoever took it replaced the letter with a forgery. It was a good forgery, but not perfect. The paper used was very old, but still about a century less so than the actual printing date. A sophisticated means of photocopying was used to print the text. An examination of the Library of Congress copy revealed that their copy was the one taken from the Riccardiana Library. Traces of that library's stamp, which had been removed by bleach, were discovered.

 

How and when the copy made its way from the library to the Swiss collector in 1990 is the remaining gap in custody. A perhaps somewhat defensive director of the Florence library, Fulvio Silvano Stacchetti, denied it could have been taken from them. He said that it had only ever been viewed by a scholar in their manuscript room, and was then always checked by two library employees. He instead pointed to a period between July 28, 1950, and April 5, 1951, when it was sent to the National Library in Rome. However, some have questioned whether the photocopying process used could have been accomplished that far back.

 

The repatriation ceremony, attended by U. S. Ambassador John R. Phillips, was held at the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome on May 18.

Rare Book Monthly

  • Sotheby’s, July 11: Galileo, Document annotated and signed by Galileo, dated Padua, 1595. £500,000 to £700,000.
  • Bonhams, July 15-25: THE AUTOGRAPH COLLECTION OF ISRAEL WITKOWER. $8,000 - $12,000
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    Bonhams, July 15-25: "Shhhhh!" A DAVID SHANNON ILLUSTRATION FROM DAVID GETS IN TROUBLE. $2,500 - $3,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: PICASSO, PABLO. Le Carmen des Carmen. Paris, 1964. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: RARE AUTOGRAPH OF AMERICAN NAVAL HERO CAPTAIN JAMES MUGFORD. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: KARA WALKER SILHOUETTES FOR TONI MORRISON'S FIVE POEMS. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FIRST APPEARANCE OF PINOCCHIO IN ENGLISH. COLLODI, CARLO.New York, 1892. $2,000 - $3,000
    Bonhams, July 15-25: BONAPARTE, JOSEPHINE. Autograph Note (unsigned) in French. $1,000 - $1,500
    Bonhams, July 15-25: FROST ON MATTHEW ARNOLD.Autograph Letter Signed to Adams, July 27, 1934. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: ELIAS BOUDINOT'S COPY OF BARLOW'S COLUMBIAN EPIC. $800 - $1,200
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A SIGNED HART CRANE BROOKLYN BRIDGE POSTCARD TO EDWARD DAHLBERG. $600 - $800
    Bonhams, July 15-25: A STOCK CERTIFICATE SIGNED BY THE "QUEEN OF WALL STREET," HETTY GREEN. $700 - $900
  • Forum Auctions
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    Forum, July 18: Rowling (J.K.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, first hardback edition, 1997. £40,000 to £60,000.
    Forum, July 18: Binding.- Lucian of Samosata Opuscula Erasmo Roterodamo interprete, first Aldine edition, Venice, Heirs of Aldus Manutius and A, 1516. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bacon (Sir Francis). De Dignitate et Augmentis Scientiarum Libri IX, Pierre Gassendi's copy gifted him by Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc, Paris, Typis Petri Mettayer, 1624. £15,000 to £20,000.
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    Forum, July 18: Shakespeare (William). The First Part of Henry the Fourth, with the Life and Death of Henry, Sirnamed Hot-Spurre…, Printed by Isaac Jaggard, and Ed. Blount, 1623. £15,000 to £20,000.
    Forum, July 18: Darwin (Charles). On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, third edition, presentation inscription 'From the Author' in a secretary's hand, John Murray, 1861. £15,000 to £20,000.
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    Forum, July 18: India.- Primrose (Gen. James Maurice). Collection of 24 original drawings from his time in India with the 43rd Regiment of Foot, circa 1855 to 1864. £10,000 to £15,000.
    Forum, July 18: Manet (Édouard). Trente Eaux-fortes originales, the complete portfolio, Paris, A. Stroelin, 1905. £8,000 to £12,000.
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    Forum, July 18: America.- Mathews (Alfred E.) Pencil Sketches of Montana, first edition, New York, Published by the Author, 1868. £6,000 to £8,000.
    Forum, July 18: Bawden (Edward). Original dust-jacket artwork for 'The Outsider' by Albert Camus, [c.1946]. £4,000 to £6,000.
    Forum, July 18: World.- Fries (Laurent). Tabula Nova Totius Orbis, woodcut map, [c.1541]. £3,000 to £5,000.

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