Vatican Corner 07-21-2019

After returning from his discovery of the New World, Christopher Columbus in February 1493 wrote a letter to Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, the patrons of his exploration, telling them what he saw during his travels. The letter was written in Spanish and then translated into Latin and copies were manually printed. Those copies became the main source of the spread of the news of his discovery of the New World to the royal leaders of Europe and to the Pope. Around 80 authentic copies still exist today. One of the oldest, an 8 page letter written in small fine print was given to the Vatican in 1921 from the Giovanni Francesco Rossi Collection of rare books and manuscripts. Sometime later the letter was stolen from the Vatican but the theft went unnoticed because it was replaced with a good forgery. The technique known as “stereotyping” was used to make the fake copy and was a common techniques in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The fake matched both the visual characteristics and the feel of the original document. In 2011, an expert of rare books and manuscripts examined the detailed construction of the Vatican’s copy. Handmade paper from rag does not have a uniform thickness and by examining “chain lines” as well as the stitching, and page size, he discovered it to be a fake. The expert contacted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security about the possible theft of one of the Vatican’s precious documents. Among its many tasks, Homeland Security works to return looted cultural heritage or stolen artwork in order to promote goodwill with foreign governments and citizens, while significantly protecting the world’s cultural heritage and knowledge of past civilizations. Vatican Officials were notified and more experts examined the Vatican’s letter, including one from Princeton University who confirmed it as a forgery. It was discovered in 2016 that the original letter was sold by a notorious Italian book thief, Marino Massimo De Caro to a New York City rare book dealer in 2004. De Caro in 2013 was sentenced to a 7 year jail term for stealing roughly 4,000 ancient books and manuscripts throughout Italy. The letter was then sold by the book dealer to David Parsons of Atlanta GA for the amount of $875,000. He was unaware that it was a stolen item. Mr. Parsons when notified of the theft had the same expert that initially spotted the fake come and closely examine his letter. The expert found it to be authentic and more analysis confirmed in April 2017 that it was the one stolen from the Vatican Library. David Parson’s widow was presented with all the evidence and she agreed to give up ownership of the letter and let it return to the Vatican. On June 14, 2018 in a ceremony in the Vatican Library, the U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Callista Gingrich returned the authentic letter to Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguè and the Vatican Library’s Prefect, Bishop Cesare Pasini. Gingrich said the letter is “a priceless piece of cultural history” and she was honored to return it to its rightful owner.” She also said the agents for Homeland Security Investigations have since 2007 returned more than 11,000 artifacts and pieces of art from over 30 countries. As a thank you to Mrs. Parsons for agreeing to give up her late husband’s treasured Columbus Letter, the U.S. Embassy hand-delivered a personal note from Mrs. Parsons to Pope Francis. Archbishop Bruguè said “we are extremely grateful” for the return and the le(er will remain available to researchers who come from around the world to study the collections of the Vatican Library.