In August of that year, investigators contacted David Parsons' widow, Mary Parsons, and presented her with evidence of the theft and forgery. She agreed to part with the letter, renouncing all rights, title and interest, so that it could be returned to its original home in the Vatican Library.
The letter formally exchanged hands June 14, when U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich presented it to Vatican Archivist and Librarian, Archbishop Jean-Louis Bruguès, O.P. and the Library's Prefect, Bishop Cesare Pasini, inside the Vatican Library.
During the hand-off, Gingrich called the letter "a priceless piece of cultural history," and said she was honored to return the letter to "its rightful owner."
She noted that U.S. Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) agents since 2007 have returned more than 11,000 artifacts and pieces of art from over 30 countries as part of an ongoing investigation into the illegal sale of stolen books and manuscripts.
To date, Gingrich said, HSI has repatriated both paintings and manuscripts to Austria, Italy, France, Germany and Poland, among others, and have recovered ancient artifacts from different regions, including Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East.
In addition to the letter recovered from Parsons, HSI has recovered and returned two other Columbus Letters as part of their ongoing investigation into the sale of stolen books and manuscripts. The two additional Columbus Letters that were confiscated have been returned to the Riccardiana Library in Florence, and the Library of Catalonia in Barcelona.
As a gesture of gratitude to Mrs. Parsons for agreeing to part with her late husband's treasured "Columbus Letter," the U.S. Embassy earlier this week hand-delivered a personal note from Mrs. Parsons to the pope.
In remarks during the repatriation ceremony, Archbishop Bruguès voiced gratitude to all involved in recovering the letter, which he said is "a priceless artifact of cultural history which today has found its way back to its home."
He said the library was "surprised" to find out their copy was a fake, and noted that while it is still unknown when the original letter was taken, the technique used in the forgery, called "stereotyping," was a common during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and reproduces not only the visual characteristics of the original, but also the tactile characteristics.
"We are extremely grateful to be able to reinsert this volume in its rightful place in De Rossi's collection," he said, adding that the letter "will remain at the disposal of researchers who come from around the world to study the collections of the Vatican Library."
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