“They firmly believed that I, with my ships and men, came from heaven, and with this idea I have been received everywhere, since they lost fear of me.”
Thus stated Christopher Columbus in a letter written in 1493 to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain describing the indigenous people he encountered when he “discovered” San Salvador Island (in the Bahamas), Cuba and Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republican).
“Another island, I am told, is larger than Hispaniola, where the natives have no hair, and where there is countless gold.”
Needless to say, Columbus’ letter describing this New World was a hit in Spain and also in the rest of Europe after it was translate into Latin. Three copies were made in Italy, including one that eventually ended up in the Vatican. It was copied by German music printer Stephan Plannck and is referred to as “Plannck II — Columbus Letter.” Of the copies made, 80 are known to still exist today. The Vatican copy had the most unusual and mysterious history – having been donated to the Apostolic Library in 1921, stolen, replaced with a forgery, discovered in Atlanta and returned last week to the Vatican. How did THAT happen?
According to a press release by the Department of Justice in Delaware, US Homeland Security received a tip in 2011 that the Plannck II — Columbus Letter in the Vatican Library was a forgery. An investigation determined that the original was in a private collection in Atlanta, Georgia, where it had been since 2004 when the owner, not knowing it was stolen, purchased it for $875,000. The owner agreed to let it be examined and it was determined to be the Vatican’s copy. The owner voluntarily relinquished it and the Columbus Letter was returned to the Vatican this week.
What about the theft and replacement with a forgery? That is still a mystery. The New York Times interviewed the Vatican’s archivist and librarian, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, who revealed that the forgery was made with stereotype printing, which used a solid metal plate containing a reverse image of a document. It was a popular technique and there’s no way to tell when the copy was made or who made it. Timothy Janz, director of the printed books department at the Vatican Library, said the substitution could been made by “an unscrupulous staff member” and it could possibly have occurred before the collection was given to the library in 1921.
And the Vatican forgery isn’t the only one, according to U.S. Attorney David C. Weiss.
“This marks the third time in two years that agents from HSI, along with prosecutors from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, have partnered to return these precious letters documenting Columbus’ journey back to their rightful home.”
In 2018, a copy of the Columbus letter was returned to the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona, which also had a forgery. In 2016, a copy acquired by the Library of Congress was returned to the Riccardiana Library in Florence to replace its forgery.
Janz believes the Vatican originals was stolen and forged when the pages of the letter were sent out to a bookbinder and that current security measures would prevent this from happening again. But what about the forgeries in the other libraries? Could this be an ironic curse on the letter reminding us that Columbus’ “discovery” was just a copy of earlier voyages made by the Vikings and perhaps even the Chinese?
After those cracks he made in it about the natives, it serves him right.