Found: A Stolen Letter From Christopher Columbus - Atlas Obscura
Join us on an Atlas Obscura Trip in 2019 »

Found: A Stolen Letter From Christopher Columbus

It ended up in the Library of Congress.

The document. (Photo: ICE)

In March of 1493, newly returned from what Europeans would call the “New World,” Christopher Columbus wrote a letter to the king and queen of Spain, the financiers of his recent voyage. He told his patrons about the native people, fruit trees and birds, how he gave the islands he visited new names, and what types of boats the islanders used. This wasn’t just a letter to the monarchs, though; it was printed and spread wide. It was how people in Europe began to learn what lay across the ocean.

There are only a few dozen original copies of Columbus’ letter left in the world, and one of them was held in Florence’s Riccardiana Library. Or so everyone thought. In 2012, American immigration and customs authors got a tip that the copy in the library was a forgery—a really, really good photocopy. That tip, it turned out, was accurate, as was the person’s information about where the letter had ended up.

It was in the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress was at the end of a line of owners of the letter. The library received it as a donation, in 2004. Before that, it had been sold at auction, in 1992, in New York City. The buyer, anonymous, paid more than $300,000 for it. The seller was a rare-books collector, who obtained it in 1990. Before that, it’s a mystery. The head of the Italian library said they believe the letter may have been stolen all the way back in 1950, when it made a trip to Rome.

The document is now back in Italy, where it was shown alongside the forgery.

Bonus find: An Egyptian tax device

Every day, we highlight one newly found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.