Long journey over for rare copy of letter by Columbus

ROME -- A rare copy of an historic letter written by Christopher Columbus, announcing the discovery of the new world, was returned Wednesday to Italy by the United States.

The explorer from Genoa penned the original letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain after his return to Europe from the Americas on February 15, 1493. In it, Columbus described the people and landscape of the new world.

Between 1493 and 1501, the eight-page letter was translated into Latin, printed and sent to various European countries to spread the news. Columbus' hand-written original has been lost, but 30 copies of the printings survived, one of them in the Riccardiana Library in Florence.

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Italian police believe thieves stole that rare copy from the library in the 1950s, and replaced it with a sophisticated forgery.

The genuine document resurfaced in 1990, when a Swiss collector sold it to an American rare books collector, who in 1992 sold it at auction for $400,000. In 2004, this last buyer donated it the U.S. Library of Congress.

Experts estimate its current value at more than $1.1 million.

In 2012, Italy's military police, the Carabinieri, realized that the copy of the letter in the Florentine library was indeed a forgery. They contacted the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, resulting in a joint American-Italian investigation which culminated in Wednesday's handover.

The document was formally returned by the United States to Italy in a repatriation ceremony attended by U.S. Ambassador to Italy John Phillips and Italian Culture Minister Enrico Francheschini.

"It is interesting how, 500 years after the letter was written, it has made the same trip back and forth from America," noted Franceschini.

Filed by CBS Radio News correspondent Anna Matranga.