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>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Francis Scott Key, <i>Star Spangled Banner,</i> first printing, c. 1814-16. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. “O. Henry,” archive of drawings made to illustrate a lost mining memoir, c. 1883-84. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> [Bay Psalm Book], printed for Hezekiah Usher of Boston, Cambridge, c. 1648-65. $50,000 to $75,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Noticia estraordinario,</i> probable first announcement in Mexico City of the fall of the Alamo, 1836. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Patrick Gass, first edition of earliest first-hand account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pittsburgh, 1807. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Diploma from the Princeton Class of 1783, commencement attended by Washington & Continental Congress. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Sprague Light Cavalry!</i> color-printed broadside, NY, 1863. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>The Lincoln & Johnson Union Campaign Songster,</i> Philadelphia, 1864. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Lucy Parsons, labor organizer, albumen cabinet card, New York, 1886. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Daniel L.F. Swift, journal as third mate on a Pacific Whaling voyage, 1848-1850. $3,000 to $4,0000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Two photos of Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon, silver prints, 1901. $1,500 to $2,500.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €

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