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A Columbus Letter Beloved by Thieves and Forgers Hits the Market

The last time Christie’s sold a copy of a famed 15th-century pamphlet announcing Christopher Columbus’s first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was in 1992, and it did not end well. It later emerged that the document had been stolen, and it was eventually repatriated to Italy.

That wasn’t the only one. Since the early 1990s, four other examples of the Latin-translated document that came on the market were discovered to have been stolen and returned to libraries in Spain, Italy and the Vatican.

The pamphlet Christie’s is auctioning off on Thursday comes from an anonymous private collection in Switzerland. This one, it says, has been investigated relentlessly to ensure it was neither stolen nor forged.

“That would be the first concern anybody would have,” said Jay Dillon, a rare-books dealer based in New Jersey who was deeply involved in a yearslong investigation with federal law enforcement that led to the recent repatriations. He said that Christie’s had “covered all the bases” to authenticate this copy of the oft-stolen pamphlet.

Printed en masse to spread news across Europe of Columbus’s voyage, the examples of this document that survived have been closely studied by scholars, coveted by rare book collectors and, at times, sold by auction houses. No wonder they have tempted forgers and thieves over the years. (Their meager size — easily tucked into a coat or bag — no doubt played a role as well.)

Christie’s, which estimates this copy to be worth between $1 million and $1.5 million, said it had spent months performing due diligence on this volume, which contains eight pages of cramped Latin type with a few scattered wax spots.

“There’s been a whole panoply of clues and lines of investigation that we have followed, and none of them has turned up anything suspicious,” said Margaret Ford, the international head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s.

Scholars and book dealers have long referred to the document as “The Columbus Letter” because it relays a letter that he was said to have written in 1493 to the Spanish court about the voyage that it had bankrolled. In it, he described the topography and Indigenous people of what he believed at the time to be the “islands of India” and proclaimed that he had taken “possession” of the islands for the king and queen of Spain.

Printed in Rome about 40 years after the commercialization of the printing press, the document’s Latin translation — including an introductory paragraph that touts Columbus as a man “to whom our age owes a great debt” — helped spread the news of the voyage across Europe.

By disseminating the document, which was something of a 15th-century news release, Spain was seeking to make known — to colonial competitors including Portugal — its claim to the islands on which Columbus had landed, which included what is modern-day Cuba, as well as Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

The document was initially printed in Spanish, and one Spanish copy that is known to have survived is considered one of New York Public Library’s treasures. Of the edition on sale at Christie’s, about 30 examples are held in institutions, and only one or two others are in private hands, Ford said, making it an “item of great rarity.”

“It’s the beginning of the collecting field of Americana,” she said.

Some scholars, including the Columbus biographer Felipe Fernández-Armesto, question whether Columbus actually wrote the precise text of the letter the pamphlet relays.

“I think it bears very clear signs of having been put together by a bunch of editors at the royal court,” Fernández-Armesto said. “But I’ve absolutely no doubt that the materials they were using to concoct this included some kind of report from Columbus, and I suppose that does make it a very significant historical curiosity.”

That curiosity is part of what drove the slim pamphlets, tucked away in libraries across Europe and the United States, to become glimmering targets for thieves.

In 1991, Sotheby’s put one such copy up for auction, leading a library in Fermo, Italy, to claim it as its own. In the early 2000s, while working for Christie’s, Ford said, she turned away a consignor of another copy because she suspected it was a forgery.

Then, a dozen years ago, Dillon, who had been investigating potential skulduggery surrounding the letters, noticed that the spots and smudges on a copy at a library in Barcelona were identical to those on a copy that he had seen on the market. He felt certain that some kind of forgery had to be at play and ultimately determined — alongside federal investigators and a colleague in the rare books world, Paul Needham — that someone had replaced the library’s copy with a forgery and sold the original.

That discovery would ultimately lead to the return of four stolen Columbus letters. All but one of those thefts had initially evaded discovery because the pamphlets had been replaced with forgeries.

The repetitive nature of the scam was captured in a 2020 announcement by the U.S. attorney’s office of Delaware, which declared that “for the fourth time since 2016,” law enforcement officials had “recovered a more than 500-year-old copy of Christopher Columbus’s letter describing his discoveries in the Americas to the Government of Italy.”

As for the copy that is currently at Christie’s, Dillon, who described the letter as the “grand prize” of rare-book collecting, said he feels confident that he can put his clients’ minds at ease. “Christie’s has done its homework,” he said.

The auction house’s investigatory process involved searching art loss databases for missing versions of the document; sharing their copy with other curators and experts for examination; and searching for any physical clues of theft, such as a library stamp removed with chemicals.

But one mystery about the copy that is currently up for sale remains: Although the book has been in a private Swiss library for nearly a century, its provenance before that is unknown. In the world of rare books, Dillon said, some haziness is common, but he said he is reassured by the fact that this copy appears to have been safely tucked away at the time of the spate of thefts that are believed to have been carried out in the late 20th century.

As the history of thefts has shifted the approach of Christie’s to this sale, so too has the transformation in recent decades of how scholars, and much of the public, view Columbus, who was once largely embraced as a pioneering explorer. The scholarship on him is now largely focused on his brutal exploitation of the Taino people, some of whom he brought back to Europe as slaves.

“The triumphalist narrative is gone,” said Geoffrey Symcox, a professor emeritus of history at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied Columbus. “We have to see it in a broader perspective.”

Whether or not this tainted image will change the appetite among collectors for such a trophy is yet to be seen.

Christie’s own auction materials depict Columbus’s deeds with a critical eye, describing the explorer as prone to violence, his assessment of the islands’ spice and gold resources as an “exaggeration” and the Spanish colonies that arose from his discovery as rife with “chaotic brutality.”

“One’s understanding of it needs to be much more nuanced than in 1992, the last time we offered one for sale,” Ford said, “We understand more about the consequences of the actions he’s describing in this letter, and so I think that’s really all for the good.”

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