27 October 2023

In Search of Christopher Columbus’s Letters

The most frequently stolen, pilfered, and repurchased letters in history

On October 5, 2023, Christie’s held an auction for an exceptionally rare document: a Latin translation dating back to 1493 of a letter penned by Christopher Columbus. This letter, printed using an ancient machine, served as a means to swiftly propagate news of Columbus’ “discoveries” throughout Europe. 

Scala Archives is delighted to inform you about the enhancement of its archive with these invaluable documents. We are also thrilled to share intriguing additional insights into Christopher Columbus’ maps, made possible thanks to the investigative efforts of the department of the Carabinieri entrusted with the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC). 

Reporting an expedition: De Insulis Indiae supra Gangem nuper Inventis 

When Christopher Columbus returned from his first voyage to the West Indies in 1493, he wrote an eight-page report about the expedition. The report, titled “De Insulis Indiae supra Gangem nuper Inventis,” was intended for the Monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. Although the original Spanish manuscript has never been found, it is believed to have existed. 

The letter was quickly translated into Latin and printed in a limited number of copies. Its purpose was to be sent to various European rulers, serving as a means to promote the success of Columbus’ expedition. The printing process, most likely carried out by Stephan Plannck’s printing shop in Rome, utilized a machine capable of rapidly composing the text. 

Described as “the first account of a journey that truly changed the world” by Columbus’ biographer, Professor Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the letter praised the natural wealth of the islands where Columbus made landfall. It depicted the indigenous people as “extraordinarily timid,” and highlighted their unsuspecting and generous nature, which Columbus likened to foolishness. Today, historians regard the letter as a piece of propaganda that marked the beginning of European colonization in the New World. 

Some even view these writings as the world’s first example of modern fake news, being highly self-congratulatory but necessary in order to secure funds for a second voyage. In reality, Columbus himself was uncertain of his exact location, mistakenly believing that he had reached the East, which was then referred to as the Indies. 

Lost letters, investigations, and discoveries

530 years later, the letters of Christopher Columbus continue to generate significant interest, being regarded as the most frequently stolen, pilfered, and repurchased letters in history. 

It is estimated that approximately 30 copies of the “De Insulis Indiae supra Gangem nuper Inventis” exist. 

Historically, the printed versions held in the Vatican Library, the Riccardiana Library in Florence, the Library of Catalonia in Barcelona, and the Marciana Library in Venice were considered genuine. However, in the late 1980s, these prints were surreptitiously replaced with copies, while the original letters found their way into various private collections. 

These perplexing disappearances and substitutions prompted an investigation by the Carabinieri Unit for the Protection of Cultural Heritage (TPC). 

Initially, it was the stolen copy from the Riccardiana Library in Florence to be recovered. In fat it had been acquired by a private individual and later sold at an auction in New York in 1992. The letter was eventually donated to the Library of Congress in the United States, which promptly returned it to Florence in 2016. 

The saga of the Marciana incunabulum became an enthralling international case. In July 2023, the joint efforts of the Carabinieri Unit (TPC) and the American Homeland Security Investigation (H.S.I) led to the retrieval of another one of the pilfered letters. This particular letter was in the possession of a collector from Texas, who, upon realizing its origin, willingly returned it to its rightful owner, the Marciana Library in Venice. 

With kind permission from the Carabinieri Command for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, the copy was returned to the Marciana Library in Venice in 2023

Now, let’s shift our focus to the Christie’s auction held in New York on October 5, 2023, where the renowned “Columbus Letter” was up for sale. The letter had been kept in a Swiss library and started with a base price of USD 950,000. However, as the auction drew to a close the final bid reached an impressive USD 3,922,000. The sale of this historically significant letter at Christie’s garnered immense attention, presenting a fortunate buyer with a remarkable opportunity to own a truly unique piece of global history. 

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In the cover: Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), detail of the Allegory of the domains of Charles V of Habsburg (1500-1558), painting by Peter Johann Nepomuk Geiger (1805-1880), Throne Room, Miramare Castle, Trieste, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Italy.