SOMEONE IS STEALING LETTERS OF CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUSAugust 4, 2020
This is one of those stories that has me scratching my head and wondering what, if anything beyond the obvious, might be going on. It was spotted by T.M. and passed along, so a big thank you.
Yesterday, recall, I blogged about Professor Yosef Garfkinkel of Hebrew University in Israel, whose archeological work has led him to the discovery of clay figurines which he believes might have been depictions of the Old Testament God Yahweh. Needless to say, it's an idea that has plenty of detractors. I mention here because this week one of the "themes" that emerged in the articles that everyone was sending me might be qualified as "historical revisionism."
So it is with this article shared by T.M., for it would appear that there is some sort of effort to steal the letters of Christopher Columbus and substitute forgeries for them. At first, when I read the title of the article, my reaction was, "so what? Some foul busybody billionaire (fill in your favorite pick here: _________ ________) wants the originals of Columbus' letters for his collection." But then an odd statement in the article jumped out at me, and made me think along my usual daily high octane speculation lines that something else entirely my be going on.
When one reads the article, one quickly comes to the conclusion that this is "merely" about art forgery. Indeed, that's the most plausible explanation; art forgery, antique forgery, old manuscript forgery, forgery of diaries of famous (or infamous) people, is a multi-million if not billion dollar business. Indeed, we're in the forgery realm in the article ab initio:
In 1492, Christopher Columbus, of course, sailed the ocean blue. And on his journey home, he wrote a letter to his patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, describing his discovery of the new world, and in effect, asking for more money to make another trip. Columbus' voyage marked one of the great plot points in history. Upon his return, his letter was printed and distributed throughout Europe, making for blockbuster news. Columbus' original handwritten letter, penned on the high seas, no longer exists, but some of the printed copies do. As we first reported last year, most are housed in prestigious libraries, and for centuries, that's where they've remained. That is, until about 10 years ago, when authorities discovered some of these treasures had been stolen and replaced with forgeries. So began a modern kind of trans-Atlantic quest, as investigators in the U.S. and Europe worked to recover Columbus' missing missives and solve this most unusual international mystery. (Emphasis added)
Later on in the article, we read that it even happened to the Vatican library:
It was here in 2011 that Vatican officials first discovered that one of their prized items, a Columbus letter, had somehow been stolen and replaced with a fake.
Jon Wertheim: How do you think this happened?
Ambrogio Piazzoni (Translation): Look I do not know. I have no idea how and when it may have happened. Certainly it was an operation carried out as a proper theft. But I do not know when or how.
So note the pattern: original copies of Columbus' 1493 letter have been stolen from various libraries, and the libraries' copies have replaced with forgeries. Note also that Columbus' original handwritten letter is no longer extant. What have been replaced are not copies of forgeries of that hand-written letter, but rather, copies of the original printing of the letter.
Then, further on in the article, we get this:
Jay Dillon is a rare book dealer in New Jersey. He ranks the Columbus letter as one of the most important documents ever printed.
Jay Dillon: This was one of the first bestsellers. It is probably the first contemporary account of anything to be published across Europe.
It was while researching Columbus letters on his home computer, back in 2011, that Jay Dillon first noticed something amiss. The National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona had posted photos of their Columbus letter online. What struck Dillon as odd: it looked exactly like a Columbus letter that he had seen for sale a year earlier, right down to the same smudge marks in the margins.
Jon Wertheim: And you're telling yourself what at this point?
Jay Dillon: I'm telling myself that one of them has to be a forgery.
Jon Wertheim: Why is that?
Jay Dillon: Because you cant have two books with the same random brown spots in the margins. It's just impossible.
Jon Wertheim: What confirmed your suspicions were these matching marks from these texts that were 500 years old?
Jay Dillon: That's right. Exactly
Jon Wertheim: That would not happen.
Jay Dillon: That cannot happen.
Jay suspected the library's letter had been stolen and put up for sale, which meant whatever was currently in their collection was a fake.
Jay Dillon: To my utter astonishment, a Columbus letter in the Vatican library was a forgery. And then I went to the Biblioteca Riccardiana in Florence and damned if the same thing doesn't happen again. Their Columbus letter is a fake too.
So again, the "forgery-and-resale" hypothesis is being pushed. And again, to this writer, that seems the most likely explanation...
... except that it was being done not just in one or two libraries with the original printed version, but all over. At the minimum, this reflects organization and intention, an important point to bear in mind for my high octane speculation. Then they brought in an expert named Paul Needham after Dillon had taken the matter to the Department of Justice to confirm what was being done:
They (the Dept of Justice) turned to Paul Needham, one of the world's foremost experts on 15th century printing. He runs the Scheide Library at Princeton University, home to one of the most valuable private collections of books on earth.
And now it was Needham's turn to travel to Europe to examine the letters. In each case, he determined the originals had indeed been removed and replaced with photographic facsimiles printed on centuries-old paper.
Paul Needham: The Columbus letter being a highly collected book it's just the perfect combination. Both very small and very valuable their value per leaf of paper is higher than for any other printed book.
Jon Wertheim: You're saying this is the perfect item to forge.
Paul Needham: It's the perfect item to forge.
But, as I mentioned, the scale of the thefts of the Columbus letter requires organization, intention, and something else: expertise. Note that according to Needham, the forgeries were being photographically reproduced on "centuries-old paper," implying one, or both, of two things: (1) a supply of centuries-old paper, which one might assume was kept in centuries-old-paper vaults so that "forgerers of the future" could dip into said vault and craft forgeries, or (2) the ability to reconstruct the process of creating the paper in the first place, which requires considerable expertise and very highly specialized knowledge. While I'm not discounting the first possibility believe it or not, it is the second, obviously, that is the more likely of the two. It's that "antique paper" issue that led the CBS reporter and author of the article, Jon Wertham, to contact a well-known Italian book forgerer, Massimo De Caro:
De Caro is not just a convicted thief, he's also an accomplished forger. He spent years making a fake Galileo book, which fooled the experts and sold for almost a half million dollars. He showed us another Galileo reproduction he made.
Massimo De Caro: you can see the quality of the paper. I used antique paper.
Jon Wertheim: You did this? This is your handiwork.
Massimo De Caro: Yes, it all. I am very proud about this.
Jon Wertheim: You're very proud of this.
Massimo De Caro: Yes.
Jon Wertheim: If this book were original, what would this fetch on the market? What would someone pay for this?
Massimo De Caro: $300,000 at least. (Emphasis added)
In one case, De Caro worked for several years to create one forgery, and that the forgery sold for half a million dollars.
It's precisely this little detail that has me scratching my head, wondering what may really be going on: several years' work, requiring very specialized knowledge in the recreation of antique paper, to recreate a book forgery that sells for only a half a million dollars? Granted, the Columbus letter is not a sizeable book, but I think you get the idea. The cost-to-profit ratio would appear to be rather low, especially when one adds in the risk factor that one, like De Caro, could serve several years in prison for being caught in an art forgery, as the article states. One would think that - oh I don't know - if you're going to forge something for that kind of risk, you'd at least forge something that would get you a tidy sum of money even at a sharp discount, something like billion dollar bearer bonds or something. Of course the Columbus forgeries are selling for at least an order of magnitude more than a mere $300,000, but I think the principle still holds: why go to all the trouble - and organization and expense and to procure the expertise - to infiltrate libraries all over the world, and substitute forgeries of the letter into the libraries, and pilfer the real ones?
These considerations lead me to the high octane speculation that we might be looking at something other or more than simple art forgery. What might it be? One answer might be that in an age of statue-toppling and book burning, it might be a subtle way to obfuscate primary sources to such an extent that they are no longer taken seriously as sources, and therefore, as history. In effect, it might be a concerted effort to call all of them into question so that a very different historical narrative can be created and substituted for the traditional one. And in the ways of power, that would be worth a substantial investment to create the organization, recruit the expertise to create the forgeries, and the people doing the pilfering of the originals and substitution of the forgeries. Nor should the cultural effects be discounted: if the world of art and literature is riddled with fraud, add that to the list of corrupted and infiltrated institutions.
Granted, that's a walk right off the end of the speculation twig. And indeed, there's a flip side to this argument, and that flip side is the forger's expertise. An argument might be made that a forgery of a Van Dyke or a Rembrandt is an indicator of the fact that these artists, who are usually portrayed as geniuses, if they can be forged, are therefore not all that remarkable. Except for one thing. The forger has to learn their craft, and learn it thoroughly and well in order to create the forgery. He literally has to put himself inside their mind, inside their technique, inside their insight and creative inspiration and reason, to understand well enough to create the forgery. It's easier said, than done. And that point returns us to the anomaly squatting in the middle of this story: who is behind this apparent organized effort to find and recruit the expertise, to infiltrate the libraries, and to fund the whole effort, and why?
See you on the flip side...