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US returns letter from Christopher Columbus to Vatican Library

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS
Public Domain
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We may never know how the letter was taken from the Vatican unnoticed.

The United States government has returned to the Vatican a copy of a letter that Christopher Columbus wrote to his Spanish benefactors, declaring his discovery of America. The document had been acquired by the Vatican Archives in the 1920s, but mysteriously disappeared in 1934, replaced by a forgery.

The Washington Post reports that during a ceremony at the Vatican Library, U.S. Ambassador Callista Gingrich presented the letter to the chief Vatican archivist, Archbishop Jean-Louis Brugues, and the prefect of the library, Bishop Cesare Pasini. Both men thanked Gingrich and praised the “keen eye and fine detective work” of US investigators in finding the stolen piece of history.

Christopher Columbus wrote the letter in Spanish in order to send news of his discovery to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. The monarch translated the letter into Latin and distributed copies all over Europe. The document that has been returned to the Vatican is one of the only few surviving copies of this historic announcement.

The document was found in the collection of Robert Parsons, a collector of travel literature manuscripts, who had acquired the text in 2004 for the significant amount of $875,000, unaware of its history. When Parsons died in 2014, his collection was inherited by his widow, who allowed the copy to be examined by the officials investigating the early 20th-century theft.

The US magistracy acknowledged that the widow Parsons was unaware of the theft of the document and stated, “After an attentive examination of the dimensions of the pages, the pencil notes and the binding, the expert concluded that the original copy was the one in possession of Mary Parsons, and that the one that is currently preserved in the Vatican it is nothing more than a forgery.”

At the ceremony Archbishop Brugues commented that the Vatican still has no clue as to how the document was stolen. He noted that the method by which the forgery was produced was quite common in the 19th and 20th centuries. “So we will probably never know for sure who the forger was.”

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