This is the first legitimate sale of a copy of the 1493 letter in decades, as recent attempts have been stymied by forgeries and thefts.
An original copy of a letter written by Christopher Columbus in 1493 to detail his voyage to the Americas has sold for $3.9 million at auction.
The letter, auctioned by the British auction house Christie’s, was thoroughly vetted to ensure its authenticity, and officials at the auction house are confident it is an original.
The Columbus Letter, as it is colloquially known, was printed just a few decades after the introduction of the printing press. It was something of a 15th-century news release, as Spain sought to make clear its claim over the islands on which Columbus landed.
“This document set off one of the first-ever media frenzies, spreading rapidly throughout Europe and forever changing peoples’ perception of the size, shape and possibilities of their world,” the auction house wrote in a statement.
The letter was written by Columbus to Spain’s Ferdinand II and Isabella I, who had bankrolled the voyage, to describe his journey across the ocean. It was originally printed in Spanish and then translated into Latin and distributed across Europe.
In the letter, Columbus boasts about his findings, claiming that he had taken possession of what he mistakenly thought were the islands of India for the king of Spain.
“It’s kind of like when Neil Armstrong stepped off the ladder and started talking about the powder of the lunar surface and how his boots stuck down,” said Steve Berry, author of the 2012 novel “The Columbus Affair,” according to the Washington Post. “He’s giving you a description of everything he’s seeing in this strange new world.”
This is the first time an original, thoroughly authenticated copy of the Columbus Letter has been auctioned since 1966. Auctioning the letter is particularly difficult because the letter has often been a target of thefts and forgeries.
In recent decades, several copies of the Columbus Letter had been stolen from libraries in Spain, Italy, and the Vatican and replaced with forgeries. And one copy that had been missing from Venice’s Marciana National Library since the 1980s was found in a private library in the United States.
But Christie’s is confident it has “covered all the bases” in reviewing the copy’s authenticity. This particular copy had been in a private library in Switzerland for nearly a century, securely tucked away from the thefts and forgeries that mainly occurred in the late 20th century.
“There’s been a whole panoply of clues and lines of investigation that we have followed, and none of them has turned up anything suspicious,” said Margaret Ford, the international head of books and manuscripts at Christie’s, in an interview with The New York Times.
Christopher Columbus’s legacy has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. In the letter, Columbus describes forcefully taking indigenous islanders back to Spain. The historical context of the letter presented challenges for the auction house.
“This is an issue that happens with many, many old documents,” Edward Lewine, Christie’s vice president of communications, told The Washington Post. “And we are very careful about the way that we present them… It’s not simple.”
Ultimately, the auction house decided to focus on the historical value of the document rather than lauding Columbus himself.
“One’s understanding of it needs to be much more nuanced than in 1992, the last time we offered one for sale,” Ford said. “We understand more about the consequences of the actions he’s describing in this letter, and so I think that’s really all for the good.”
After reading about the auction of the Columbus Letter, read about some of the most shocking facts about Christopher Columbus. Or, read about Albert Einstein’s “God Letter” that sold for nearly $3 million.