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>Il Ponte, Sep. 21:</b> ZEILER, Martin - <i>Topographiae Italiae.</i> Francoforte: Mattheus Merian, 1688. €3,500 to €4,500.
    <b>Il Ponte, Sep. 21:</b> HAMILTON, William, Sir -- HANCARVILLE, Pierre-Francois HUGUES - Collection of Etruscan, Greek and Roman Antiquities from the Cabinet of the Hon. William Hamilton. Napoli: Francois Morelli, 1766-67. €38,000 to €48,000.
    <b>Il Ponte, Sep. 21:</b> [ASTRONOMIA] - Manoscritto astronomico. Italia: 1650. €1,000 to €1,500.
    <b>Il Ponte, Sep. 21:</b> DALI, Salvador - <i>Biblia Sacra vulgatae editionis.</i> Edizione “Ad Personam” Milano: Rizzoli, 1967. €40,000 to €60,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> C.F. Payne, <i>Micawber—Imitating Norman Rockwell's "Triple self-portrait,"</i> acrylic, watercolor & colored pencil, 2002. Sold June 2021 for $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Jane Russell, archive of letters written during a whaling voyage, 1840s. Sold July 2021 for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Guild of Women Binders, exhibition binding of A.F. Pollard’s <i>Henry VIII,</i> London, 1902. Sold July 2021 for $12,350.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Robert Frost, <i>Collected Poems,</i> author’s presentation copy, signed, with entirety of <i>Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening</i> inscribed, NY, 1930. Sold June 2021 for $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> James Joyce, <i>Ulysses,</i> deluxe limited issue, signed, London, 1936. Sold June 2021 for $21,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Mercator [family], <i>[World and Continents],</i> 5 double-page maps, Amsterdam, c. 1633. Sold June 2021 for $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> George Schlegel, <i>New York, Taken from Central Park,</i> hand-finished color-tinted lithograph, 1874. Sold June 2021 for $11,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolaus Copernicus, <i>De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium,</i> second edition, Basel, 1566. Sold April 2021 for $75,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Book of Hours, Use of Utrecht, illuminated manuscript, c. 1435-45. Sold April 2021 for $60,000.
  • <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>September 23, 2021</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 20. ADAMS, JOHN QUINCY. Letter to the editors of the Boston Atlas on slavery and its political ramifications, 1842. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 208. HEMINGWAY, ERNEST. <i>A Farewell To Arms.</i> New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1929. First edition. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 237. ADDAMS, CHARLES. Original drawing "Now Remember-act casual." $5,000 to $7,000.
    <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>September 23, 2021</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 4. SMITH, ADAM. <i>An inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations.</i> Philadelphia, 1789. The first American edition. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 131. BEETHOVEN, LUDWIG VON. <i>Cinquieme Sinfonie en ut mineur: C Moll de Louis Van Beethoven. Oeuvre 67.</i> First edition of the complete score. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 73. Chinese Export Painting. Album of twenty-three original Chinese natural history studies of flowers and insects. Likely Canton: circa 1850. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b><center>Doyle<br>Rare Books, Autographs & Maps<br>September 23, 2021</b>
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 241. GOREY, EDWARD. Original drawing "Cat Drawing Wallpaper." Signed in Pencil in lower right margin. $2,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 36. LINCOLN, ABRAHAM. Autograph note signed instructing Edwin Stanton to meet with the important African American abolitionist and officer Martin Delany. [Washington:] 21 February 1865. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 112. JONSON, BEN. <i>Workes</i>. London: William Stansby, 1616; Together with <i>Workes.</i> London: Richard Meighen,1640-41. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Doyle, Rare Books, Autographs & Maps:</b> Lot 161. STURGIS, LEE. <i>Salmon Fishing on Cain River, New Brunswick.</i> (Chicago:) Privately printed (for the author by Ralph Fletcher Seymour), 1919. First edition. $3,000 to $5,000.
  • <b><center>Fonsie Mealy’s<br>The Library of Howth Castle<br>September 22nd & 23rd, 2021</b>
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Rosellini (Ippolito). <i>I Monumenti dell Egitto e Della Nubia,</i> Plate Volumes 1, 11 & 111, 3 vols. Elephant folio. €50,000 to €80,000.
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Curtis (William), 1746 - 179, & other Editors. <i>The Botanical Magazine: or, The Flower Garden Displayed.</i> London 1793 - 1982-83. Together 184 vols. [with] other botanical material. €30,000 to €40,000.
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Berkeley (George). <i>A Treatise Concerning the principles of Human Knowledge, wherein the chief Causes of Error and Difficulty in the Sciences…</i> Part I, Dublin, 1710 Rare First Edn. €15,000 to €20,000.
    <b><center>Fonsie Mealy’s<br>The Library of Howth Castle<br>September 22nd & 23rd, 2021</b>
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Ruskin (John). A large finely executed Pencil Drawing, captioned <i>Oxford Cathedral, The Choir,</i> & Signed 'J. Ruskin Ch. Ch. 1838. €15,000 to €20,000.
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Sir Edward L. Lutyens. Howth Castle Plans: A Series of 10 Original Architects Drawings and Sketches, Alterations and Additions for J.C. Gaisford St. Lawrence, County Dublin, Ireland. €8,000 to €12,000.
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Newman (Rev. Fr. John Henry, later Cardinal, now Saint) A very good collection of 24 A.L.S. to [Thomas] Gaisford of the Gaisford St. Lawrence family of Howth Castle. €10,000 to €15,000.
    <b><center>Fonsie Mealy’s<br>The Library of Howth Castle<br>September 22nd & 23rd, 2021</b>
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Manuscript Atlas: Hodges, Smith & Co. <i>The Estate of the Rt. Hon. the Earl of Howth Situate in the County of Dublin,</i> lg. atlas folio Dublin (Hodges, Smith & Co.) 1863. €4,000 to €6,000.
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Anon. <i>Herbolario Volgare: nel quale se dimostra conoscer le herbe et le sue vrtu…</i> Sm. 8vo Venice (Gio Maria Palamides) 1539. €3,000 to €4,000.
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Baron (Caesar). <i>Annales Ecclesiastici</i>. [With] <i>Annalium Ecclesiasticorum Caesaris Baronii... Apparatus.</i> [With] <i>Index Universalis Rerum Omnium</i> [and one other]. 38 vols total. €1,500 to €2,000.
    <b><center>Fonsie Mealy’s<br>The Library of Howth Castle<br>September 22nd & 23rd, 2021</b>
    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Log Books of Three British Warships. Three folio Volumes, containing meticulously arranged logs of the voyages of Royal Navy Ships from 1876 – 1881. €1,200 to €1,800.
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    <b>Fonsie Mealy’s, Sep. 22-23:</b> Bosio (Antonio). <i>Roma Sotteranea,</i> Opera Postuma. Large thick folio Rome (Guglielmo Facciotti) 1632. €1,000 to €1,500.

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