The return to Italian authorities of a letter written more than five centuries ago by Christopher Columbus caused some excitement Wednesday at the University of Southern Maine.

USM officials said the university’s Osher Map Library in Portland has a copy of the letter Columbus wrote in 1493. It is one of only 80 remaining copies of the letter, which chronicles Columbus’ discoveries in the New World.

At a press conference Wednesday in Rome, U.S. Ambassador John Phillips officially returned the stolen letter to Italian authorities. It had been donated to the Library of Congress in 2004 from the estate of its final owner, who did not realize that it had been stolen from the Biblioteca Riccardiana Library in Florence, Italy, and replaced with a forgery.

The switch was discovered in 2012 by agents with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Investigations. A joint investigation by U.S. and Italian authorities led the U.S. government to hand over the original to Italy.

“Five hundred years later, it did the same trip (as Columbus’), round-trip,” Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini told The Associated Press.

The AP reported that the 8-page letter is valued at $1.13 million.

Columbus wrote the letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain during his return trip from the Americas. The letter contained Columbus’ impressions of the people who populated the New World, along with a list of the rich natural resources he found there.

The letter was long because Columbus was making his case for a return voyage, said Ian Fowler, director of the Osher Map Library and Smith Center for Cartographic Education.

“The important thing to remember is that he was an entrepreneur who is coming back to Spain empty-handed. He is trying to lay the groundwork for a future mission,” Fowler said of Columbus’ exploration report.

Fowler said USM’s copy was printed in Basel, Switzerland, in 1494, one of roughly 3,000 copies that were printed and distributed throughout Europe’s major urban centers. There were 17 published editions from 1493 to 1497.

Fowler said the library’s copy, written in Latin and 12 pages long including maps, was acquired in 1996 by Dr. Harold L. Osher and his wife, Peggy L. Osher, and donated to the university that year.

Its historical significance is off the charts, said Fowler.

“It proved that you could sail west from Europe and find land,” he said. “It was truly a New World that European nations knew very little about.”

He declined to speculate on the value of Columbus’ original letter, but said, “For collectors, it is the Holy Grail.”

Mainers can view USM’s copy in the Osher Map Library’s climate-controlled vault. Prior arrangements must be made.

 


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