A stolen copy of a rare Christopher Columbus letter has been recovered -- and it's not the first time

(CNN)For the fourth time in four years, federal authorities announced they have recovered a stolen copy of a letter that Christopher Columbus wrote describing his voyage to the Americas.

The US Attorney's Office of Delaware and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which investigates looted cultural heritage and stolen artwork, made the announcement Wednesday after investigators found that a collector had unsuspectingly bought the letter from a rare book dealer in the United States in 2003.
Turns out, it was the very letter that had been missing from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, a public library in Venice, Italy, since the mid-1980s.

The letter is extremely rare

    Copies of the letter are extremely rare and highly valued by collectors and curators of historic artifacts.
    Columbus wrote the letter to Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1493 after returning from what Europeans called the New World. The letter was then published in cities and countries across Europe, helping spread the news of his journey throughout the continent.
    The recently recovered letter is known as a Plannck I edition. It's named after Stephan Plannck, a printer in Rome who published two editions of the letter more than 500 years ago.
    The Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana acquired a copy of Plannck's first edition, which is translated into Latin from Spanish, around 1875, according to a news release from the US Attorney's Office. Authorities said the letter was stolen from the library between 1985 and 1988 and was missing for decades.
    About 30 copies of this first edition have survived, according to Paul Needham, a rare book expert and curator at Princeton University's Scheide Library.
    The US attorney's office said in its announcement the recently recovered copy is valued at more than $1,300,000.
    "Culturally significant artifacts are assigned a monetary value in the world's marketplaces in which they are traded," William Walker, acting special agent in charge of ICE's Homeland Security Investigations in Philadelphia, said in a statement.
    "But the cultural and symbolic worth of these objects far surpasses any given dollar value to the nations to whom they rightfully belong. HSI is pleased that today's court action is a positive step toward returning this five-century old Christopher Columbus letter to the people of Italy."

    The letter will be returned to Venice

    In 2019, investigators contacted the person who bought the stolen copy. The person, who has not been publicly identified, agreed to let Needham inspect the letter.
    Needham told CNN he was very familiar with the copy of the letter stolen from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana -- and the sewing on the fold between leaves 2 and 3, used to bind it together, was especially distinctive. So when the binding on this letter matched, he knew they had the stolen copy in their hands.
    "The signs of the original sewing holes matched up really precisely with the Marciana copy," he said.
    Once it was determined the letter was indeed the one that had been stolen from the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, the buyer agreed to turn it over to authorities.
    "I'm just very happy that a national treasure of Italy is going back to a great library in Italy," Needham told CNN. "The American owner really did the right thing. It must be very disappointing to learn that years later, a book you bought that you paid a lot of money for turns out to be stolen."
    A court filing in the District of Delaware ordered the letter be returned to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana.
    "We continue to be thankful for our strong law enforcement partnership with the Government of Italy to combat cross-border crimes that bring stolen cultural property into the United States for sale," US Attorney David Weiss said in a news release.
    "This recovery is an excellent example of international law enforcement collaboration resulting in the return of world treasurers to their rightful owners."
    The investigation is ongoing and authorities have not released further details on how the letter was stolen or came to be in the possession of a rare book dealer in the United States.

    Other copies have been stolen before

      In 2018, US authorities returned one stolen copy of Columbus' letter to a library in Vatican City and another to the Library of Catalonia in Spain.
      In 2016, the United States returned an eight-page copy that had been stolen from a library in Florence, Italy, and donated to an unsuspecting US Library of Congress.