ATLANTA — After more than a decade in a private collection in Atlanta, a stolen copy of a letter Christopher Columbus wrote about the New World is headed home to the Vatican.
Upon returning to Europe from his first trip to the Americas, Columbus wrote a letter to his Spanish patrons in 1493 describing what he’d seen. The letter was converted into pamphlets by printers to spread news of Columbus’s journey across Europe.
Robert Parsons, an actuary from Atlanta, bought one of those copies from a rare book dealer in New York in 2004 for $875,000, The Wall Street Journal reported. What he didn’t realize is that the document had been stolen from the Vatican.
There are about 80 copies of the letter left today, and the one Parsons bought was among the oldest, dating to 1493, investigators said in court documents.
The letter describes lands with “large flowing rivers” and “trees of endless varieties,” and of timid natives who “are so unsuspicious and so generous with what they possess, that no one who had not seen it would believe it,” the newspaper reports, citing a translation of the letter from the Independence Hall Association, which runs ushistory.org.
The letter was a part of a collection of rare books and manuscripts that belonged to Gian Francesco De Rossi, who lived in Rome in the 19th century. After his death in 1854, De Rossi’s wife donated the collection to the Jesuits, according to the Bookman’s Journal and Print Collector catalog of 1922. The Jesuits, in turn, gave the collection to Pope Benedict XV in 1921.
Investigators do not know when the letter was stolen from the Vatican Library, the U.S. Department of Justice said in court filings.
Agents traced the letter to Parsons’ collection this year. But Parsons, who died in 2014, bought the letter in good faith, not knowing it had been stolen, a federal prosecutor wrote in a court filing.
Richard Lan, who owns Martayan Lan, the rare book dealer from whom Parsons bought the letter, said he wasn’t aware of the theft. He declined to comment on how he got it.
“I had no previous knowledge of this,” he said in an email to the newspaper.
Investigators contacted Parsons’ widow, Mary Parsons, in March, according to court documents, and she agreed to let an expert compare the letter to the copy at the Vatican. The expert found that the copy in the Vatican was fake and that Parson’s letter belonged to the Vatican.
Mary Parsons found it difficult to part with “the crown jewel” of her husband’s collection and plans to send a personal letter to the pope along with the Columbus letter, her lawyer Mark Marani told the newspaper.
“She knew returning this to the rightful owner is something her late husband would have wanted her to do,” Marani said.