ICE tracks down 500-year-old stolen Columbus letter, sends it back to Spain

Penned first in 1493, the copy of the Columbus letter was stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, ICE said. It sold for about $1 million.
Penned first in 1493, the copy of the Columbus letter was stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain, ICE said. It sold for about $1 million. ICE

Lost mail is always a hassle.

But when this letter went missing, it launched a seven-year international investigation, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. That’s because it was a rare manually-printed copy of a letter Christopher Columbus sent King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain cataloging his voyage to the Americas. Stephan Plannck, a 15th Century printer, made copies of the missive shortly after the explorer penned it in 1493 to share news of Columbus’ travels with the rest of Europe, authorities said.

The valuable copy of the so-called Plannck II letter had been held at the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona until it was stolen years ago, investigators said. And the library just got it back: ICE and the Justice Department formally returned the stolen, 500-year-old letter to Spanish authorities at a ceremony in Washington on Wednesday.

Getting the letter back required the work of investigators from Delaware, Madrid, Paris, Brasilia and beyond, according to Alysa D. Erichs, a leader of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit. Erichs described the letter as “a priceless piece of cultural property.”

A tip to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware set off the years-long letter hunt in 2011, authorities said. Prosecutors there learned that a handful of original Columbus letters had gone missing in Europe, including the Barcelona copy.

In the real letter’s place, the thieves placed a forgery that was apparently convincing: Neither library staff nor local police noticed a thief had made off with the real letter. After it was taken, the letter was sold for the equivalent of $1 million, investigators learned.

When an expert and a U.S. agent headed to the Barcelona museum in person in June 2012, investigators’ suspicions were confirmed: The letter at the museum was a forgery — and the real one was gone, the U.S. investigators and their Spanish counterparts found.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Justice Department investigators returned the letter to Spanish officials Wednesday, ICE said. ICE

Investigators learned that the Barcelona letter had been sold at least twice. Two Italian book sellers sold off the pilfered copy for 600,000 Euros in November 2005, and it was sold again in June 2011 for 900,000 euros, according to U.S. authorities.

That’s when the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware began “extensive negotiations” with a person who had come into the letter. Investigators ultimately persuaded the person to hand over the letter to federal agents voluntarily. It then ended up in Wilmington, where still more experts scrutinized the letter.

Finally, in March 2014, an expert analyzed the letter that had been handed over and judged it to be “beyond all doubt” an original, authorities said. A battery of other digital imaging tests and analyses revealed a chemical agent had likely been used to “bleach the ink of National Library of Catalonia’s stamp.” The tests also revealed “that the paper fibers ... had been disturbed from their original state where the stamps were previously located.”

That tampering was likely an effort by thieves to hide the fact the letter had been stolen, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2016 when another stolen Columbus letter was returned.

“We are truly honored to return this historically important document back to Spain — its rightful owner,” U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss said in a statement. “I commend the dogged efforts of HSI special agents and Department of Justice attorneys who are dedicated to the recovery of stolen cultural artifacts from around the world.”

Spain’s Ambassador to the U.S. Pedro Morenés said in a statement that the “ceremony is a showcase of the ties that bind the United States and Spain together.”

It’s not the first time federal investigators have tracked down and returned a Columbus letter. In 2016, a copy of the same letter — this time stolen from the Riccardiana Library in Florence — was returned to Italy, ICE said. Today, only about 80 copies of Columbus’ letter remain, the Los Angeles Times reports.

According to ICE, the agency has helped recover and return more than 10,000 paintings, manuscripts, letters and other artifacts to more than 30 countries since 2007.

Protesters demanding removal of the Christopher Columbus statue from the rotunda at California's Capitol were arrested Monday, June 4, 2018, authorities say. The protesters were members of the California Poor People's campaign.

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