The United States has returned to Italy a stolen copy of rare letter written by Christopher Columbus in 1493 about his discovery of the New World, Italian authorities announced on Wednesday.
The eight-page letter was penned by Columbus on Feb. 15, 1493 from his ship, the Niña, on his way back to Spain after the historic voyage to the Americas.
Addressed to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, it described Columbus' impressions about the people, flora and fauna of the Americas. The manuscript was translated into Latin, printed and distributed around Europe to spread the news of Spain's findings in the new world.
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Only a handful of these copies have survived. One of them, bound in a volume and printed by Stephan Plannck - known as the Plannck II Columbus letter - was kept at Florence's Riccardiana library.
The volume was stolen from the Florentine library at least 24 years ago, but the theft was discovered only in 2012. The thieves had replaced it with a forged copy. According to the director of the library, it is also possible the theft and substitution occurred in 1950-51 while the book was out on loan.
In 2012, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) special agents received a tip that the Plannck II letter in the Riccardiana Library had been replaced with a forgery and informed Italy's Carabinieri art squad.
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A rough binding, the print style and the different page size clearly showed it was a forgery.
Detective work revealed the stolen volume, which had the Riccardiana Library's stamp removed, was bought by a private collector at auction in 1992 for $300,000. It was finally bequeathed to the Library of Congress in Washington in 2004.
According to a statement of the Carabinieri art squad, the true value of the letter is estimated at 1 million euros ($1.13 million).
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"Documents such as the ‘Plannck II' Columbus Letter are of significant cultural value as they provide historical facts about critical events in world history, and we are humbled to return this historic document back to its home country," said U.S. Attorney Charles M. Oberly, III.
The letter will be likely returned to its original place in Florence's Riccardiana library.
"Five hundred years after it was written, this letter made the same trip, back and forth from America," Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said.