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US returns stolen Christopher Columbus letter to Vatican

A copy of a Christopher Columbus letter, stolen from the Vatican Library and returned by the United States, is seen displayed at the Vatican on June 14 (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, pool)

A stolen copy of a letter by Christopher Columbus has been returned to the Vatican by the US ambassador to the Holy See.

The four-page document, estimated to be worth $1.2 million, was replaced with a forgery, and the original ended up in the possession of a collector in Atlanta, Georgia. When the late Robert Parsons purchased the piece, he was unaware it had been stolen.

“It is a precious piece of history and I am honored to return it to its rightful owner,” said ambassador Callista Gingrich, who presented the document to the Vatican.

When Columbus first traveled to the Americas, he wrote a letter detailing his discoveries to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The original letter, written in Spanish in 1493, was quickly translated into other languages, spreading the news of his discovery. The original Spanish version was lost, but 80 of the translated copies still exist.

The letter in the possession of the Vatican was a Latin copy printed in 1493 and later donated to the superior general of the Jesuits in the early 1800s. In 1921 it was given to Pope Benedict XV to keep in the Vatican library.

The US Department of Homeland Security received a tip in 2011 that the document in the Vatican’s possession was a fake, although it is not known when the two copies were switched. When they traced the original document to Parsons’ widow, she agreed to turn over the letter as long as it was returned to the Vatican.

The fake letter was revealed to have the original binding, which matched the document in Parsons’ possession. The ink and texture of the paper appeared like the original as well.

The Vatican will keep both the real letter and the forgery in its collection “because even the theft is part of history,” said Msgr. Cesare Pasini, the library’s prefect.