ICE, U.S. Attorney’s Office Return 500-Year-Old Columbus Letter to Spain

Last week, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office “returned a more than 500-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his discoveries in the Americas to Spain during an evening repatriation ceremony at the Residence of the Spanish Ambassador to the United States,” according to a press release posted by the Department of Justice.

The letter was “originally written in 1493” and “was stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona and sold for approximately $1 million.”

The investigation began in 2011 when ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) department in Wilmington, Delaware and the Delaware U.S. Attorney’s Office “received a tip that several 15th century original manually printed copies of the Columbus Letter were stolen from European libraries and replaced with forgeries without the knowledge of library officials or local law enforcement.”

Upon looking into the matter, “the investigation determined that the stolen Columbus Letter from Spain was sold in November of 2005 for 600,000 Euros by two Italian book dealers.”

The following June, “a subject matter expert, accompanied by an HSI Wilmington Special Agent, visited the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona and reviewed the Columbus Letter in the possession of the library at which time it was determined, in coordination with Spanish authorities and with support from HSI Madrid that the letter at the library was a forgery.”

“In March 2013, it was discovered that the Columbus Letter believed to have been stolen from Barcelona was reportedly sold for 900,000 euros in June 2011,” according to DOJ. “Following extensive negotiations with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, the individual in possession of the letter volunteered to transfer custody to HSI Special Agents.”

“The recovery of this Plannck II Columbus Letter on behalf of the Spanish government exemplifies not only the significance of federal agency partnerships in these complicated investigations, but the close coordination that exists between American and foreign law enforcement agencies,” U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss said of the letter’s return. “We are truly honored to return this historically important document back to Spain – its rightful owner.  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.”

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