For years, investigators searched the world for a stolen letter written by Christopher Columbus in 1493. And it was right here in Atlanta all along, or at least for the past 14 years.
The 8-page, handwritten letter had been preserved in the Vatican Library. But at some point it was stolen and replaced with a forged copy, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Then, in February 2004, an Atlanta art collector purchased the original letter for $875,000 without knowing it had been stolen, according to investigators.
In April, the Atlanta owner — identified as Mary Parsons — agreed to have an expert inspect and compare the Columbus Letter here against the copy found in the Vatican Library. The expert determined the original letter was in Atlanta, and Parsons voluntarily agreed to hand it over, officials said.
It was the third time in two years that Homeland Security investigators, along with prosecutors for the District of Delaware, have worked together to return stolen letters documenting Columbus’ journey, U.S. Attorney David Weiss said. The letter is now back in the Vatican Library and was returned in a ceremony attended by Callista Gingrich, U.S. ambassador to the Vatican and wife of former Georgia congressman Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich called the letter “a priceless piece of cultural history.”
“I am honored to return this remarkable letter to the Vatican Library – its rightful owner,” she said.
The letter is one of a few dozen authentic, reprinted copies of Columbus' original letter, which was handwritten in Spanish and reprinted in Latin. The explorer sent the letter to Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to offer his first impressions of what he believed to be the eastern edge of Asia. The letter was one of several historical documents given to the Vatican in 1921.
The letter began its journey to Atlanta in 2004 when Robert David Parsons, unaware it had been stolen, purchased it from a rare book collector in New York. A native of England, Parsons raised his family and worked as an actuary in Atlanta. After retiring, he developed a passion for collecting, according to his obituary.
Jamie McCall, an assistant U.S. attorney in the district of Delaware, told The Associated Press that Parsons bought the book in good faith and was not implicated in the theft. Parsons died in 2014. When presented with evidence that the letter was stolen, his widow, Mary, agreed to return it.
"She understood the significance of this particular letter to the Vatican, to the world, to the researchers who come to the library in search of answers for what occurred in that period of time," he said.
The Parsons family could not be reached for comment Friday.
“Understandably, she found it difficult to part with this piece from her husband’s collection,” Gingrich said during her speech at the Vatican Library. “I am pleased that our embassy was able to deliver Mrs. Parsons’ personal letter to His Holiness Pope Francis earlier this week.”
The investigation into the stolen letter is still ongoing.