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WILMINGTON, Del. (CBS/CNN) — The United States is returning what will be the third recovered copy of a letter by Christopher Columbus that had been stolen from European institutions.
On Thursday, Callista Gingrich, the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See, is scheduled to give the rare Columbus letter back to Vatican officials after it had been taken and replaced with a forged copy at the Vatican Library.
“The Columbus Letter, written in 1493, is a priceless piece of cultural history. I am honored to return this remarkable letter to the Vatican Library – its rightful owner,” Gingrich said in a statement.
Last week, the United States had returned a copy of the stolen Columbus letter to the Library of Catalonia in Spain and another copy in 2016 to the Riccardiana Library in Italy.
“We are extremely grateful to be able to reinsert this volume in its rightful place in De Rossi’s collection, where it will remain at the disposal of the researchers who come from around the world to study the collections of the Vatican Library,” said Vatican Librarian Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès.
The letter describes the explorer’s 1493 account of his discoveries, addressed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. After being translated into Latin, several copies of his letter were disbursed around Europe. But only about 80 copies of all editions have survived, and one went to the Vatican Library in 1921.
It’s unclear when it was stolen from the Vatican’s collection and swapped with a forged copy, according to a statement from the US Embassy to the Holy See.
U.S. investigators had learned that several manually printed copies of the letter had been stolen from European libraries. The Department of Homeland Security and Homeland Security Investigations worked on the case after receiving a tip from a rare book and manuscript expert in 2011 that the one in the Vatican was a forgery.
The Columbus letter was traced to Robert Parsons, an Atlanta actuary, who had bought it from a rare book dealer in New York in 2004. He was “unaware that it had been taken from the Vatican,” according to the U.S. Embassy statement.
His widow, Mary Parsons, voluntarily agreed to give up rights to the letter, so it could be sent back to the Vatican Library, the embassy said.
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