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World

U.S. Returns Stolen Christopher Columbus Letter To Italy

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Here's another story that sounds like it could have come from a movie. But instead of science fiction, this one is a heist caper. This is the tale of a stolen artifact. The story involves Christopher Columbus, Italy and the U.S. Library of Congress. Here's NPR's Chris Arnold.

CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: In 1492, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic and explored the Americas. On his way back to Spain, something you might not know is that he wrote a long letter to his patrons King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. It was basically a diary of his journey.

JAMIE MCCALL: That's correct. So the letter is an accounts of Columbus's voyage to the New World.

ARNOLD: That's Jamie McCall. He's an investigator with the U.S. Justice Department who's been working on the case.

MCCALL: Columbus described the native people as very quick to provide him with gifts and friendly individuals that would be easy to conquer by the European powers. I mean, that's something that stuck out to me.

ARNOLD: So this letter's a pretty important historical document, and back 500 years ago, scores of copies of it were made and sent all around Europe to spread word of the New World. OK, so fast forward to modern times, and one of these copies is sitting in a rare book collection in a library in Florence, Italy, and...

MCCALL: The letter was stolen sometime before 1992. We don't know exactly when the letter was stolen, and we don't know who stole the letter.

ARNOLD: That's because the letter was replaced with a forgery that was only recently discovered. We do know that at one point, the stolen letter was sold at auction in New York City.

MCCALL: In 1992, the letter sold for $300,000.

ARNOLD: Then 20 years later, investigators in the U.S. got a tip. And here was the strange thing. The tip said that the letter had been stolen but that it wasn't hanging on the wall of some shady antiquities dealer. The tip said...

MCCALL: That the original may be located in the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

ARNOLD: The Library of Congress - well, that doesn't happen every day. But in this case, that's exactly where it was. Investigators believe a well-meaning collector who didn't know that the letter was stolen donated it to the library.

McCall says this might be the first time that's happened with the Library of Congress, but he says the theft of the antiquities around the world is way too common.

MCCALL: They're really treasures of world history, but listening to the Italians today just reinforces the idea that there are people out there that are committing these crimes frequently to make money.

ARNOLD: McCall and other investigators with the Justice Department and Homeland Security have now returned the Columbus letter to its rightful location in Rome at the Biblioteca Angelica. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.