(Bloomberg) -- In the midst of escalating trade disputes and questions about America’s role in the world, the Trump administration found itself this week doing a favor for one of its oldest allies.
On Wednesday, the U.S. government turned over to the Spanish ambassador a letter written in 1493 by Christopher Columbus, describing his “discovery” of the New World to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. The letter, stolen from a Spanish library in 2004 or 2005, was obtained by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Delaware after negotiating with someone who purchased it for around $1 million, apparently not knowing it had been stolen.
The letter’s return marked the end of an investigation worthy of a Hollywood movie.
In 2004, the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona posted on its website pictures of some of its holdings, including the Columbus letter. But in November 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, the letter was sold by “two Italian book dealers" for 600,000 euros ($710,000). Jamie McCall, the assistant U.S. attorney for Delaware, said the letter must have been taken from the library at some point in between, and replaced with a forgery.
In 2011, the letter was sold again, for 900,000 euros. Around that time, Homeland Security Investigations, a division of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, got a tip about the theft. In 2012, the office sent an agent to the library in Catalonia, who along with Spanish authorities determined that the copy at the library was indeed a fake.
A stroke of luck allowed U.S. authorities to find the person in possession of the letter.
The expert who helped authorities confirm that the document in the library was a forgery happened to know exactly what the original looked like. That’s because the letter’s most recent buyer had asked that same expert to verify the letter’s authenticity before he purchased it, according to McCall.
By the end of 2013, McCall’s office had convinced the buyer to surrender the letter. McCall wouldn’t identify the person who had the letter, or whether that person received any money from U.S. or Spanish authorities for turning it over.
The Embassy of Spain in Washington didn’t immediately answer questions about its role.
The letter represents a growing trend in U.S. cooperation with other countries on finding and repatriating cultural artifacts, spurred partly by the flood of items stolen from war zones in the Middle East, according to Christopher Marinello, an expert in lost art.
"Lately the U.S. has been very good at making these types of things happen," Marinello, a lawyer who runs Art Recovery International, said in an interview. "Law enforcement has become a lot more educated on the topic, given the looting in Syria and in Iraq."
Jordan Jacobs, head of cultural policy and repatriation for the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, said that locating and returning objects like the Columbus letter improves the country’s standing with other nations.
"There’s some diplomatic goodwill to be gained from an action like this," Jacobs said.
The letter returned Wednesday won’t be the last. Next week, McCall said his office intends to repatriate another copy of Columbus’s letter, this one to the Vatican.
"They’re going back to their place of origin, where they belong," McCall said. "We would expect the same in return."
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