Everybody knows that in 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But the explorer was also one of the world’s first best-selling authors. On his journey home, more than500 years ago, he wrote a letter to his royal patrons, describing his remarkable arrival in the Americas. His letter was copied and multiple printings were made, spreading the news of his historic voyage across Europe. Today only a few of these printed letters still exist. They are rare and valuable treasures, as well as fixtures in the collections of some of the most prestigious libraries in the world. That is, they were until recently. Because their value has also made them a perfect target for forgers and thieves. Jon Wertheim reports on a classic international detective story for the next edition of 60 MINUTES Sunday, Oct. 20 (7:00-8:00PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
It was Jay Dillon, a rare book dealer in New Jersey, who first tipped off authorities to the thefts in 2011. The National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona had posted photos of its Columbus letter online. Dillon noticed that the letter looked exactly like one he had seen for sale a year earlier, right down to the same smudge marks in the margins.Dillon suspected the library’s letter had been stolen and put up for sale, which meant whatever was currently in their collection was a fake. And if one letter had been replaced with a forgery, there might be others.Following his instincts, Dillon traveled to Rome and Florence, and discovered, to his great astonishment, two more forged Columbus Letters – onein the Vatican Library and another one in the Riccardiana Library in Florence. He was outraged but not entirely surprised. “[The letter] was one of the first best-sellers… Each one is now worth…more than 1 million but probably less than 4 or 5 million,” he tells Wertheim.
Jay Dillon went to the U.S. Department of Justice with his startling information,and Homeland Security Investigators opened a case. They enlisted the help of Paul Needham, the Scheide librarian at Princeton University, and one of the world’s top experts in 15th century printing, who determined the Columbus letters had indeed been stolen, and replaced with photographic facsimiles printed on centuries-old paper. “The Columbus letter being a highly collected book, it’s just the perfect combination,” he says. “Both very small and very valuable. Their value per leaf of paper is higher than for any other printed book. It’s the perfect item to forge.”
U.S. authorities teamed up with the Italian Caribinieri Police’s Cultural Heritage squad, an elite art crime unit basedin Rome, which investigates and recovers stolen art and antiquities on a grand scale. In Italy, it’s a crime market second only to that of illegal drug and weapon sales. Capt. Giovanni Prisco of the Carabinieri unit showed Wertheim the warehouse in the back of his police station, which houses one of the most valuable art collections in Europe, including masterpieces from the likes of Ruebens, Tiepolo and Caravaggio – as well as dozens of amphoras and sculptures. Prisco says one of Italy’s biggest challenges these days is protecting its rare books. The country has more than 18,000 libraries. And books are also easy to conceal. “Books, some of them are really small, and it’s not difficult to put under your arm or in your jacket.”
Eight years into the joint US-Italian investigation, three stolen Columbus letters have been recovered and returned to their rightful homes, and the case is ongoing.
TREE OF LIFE – Lesley Stahl speaks to the survivors of the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history a year after a gunman killed 11 people inside their Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Shachar Bar-On is the producer.
MADAME LAGARDE – Soon-to-be head of the European Central Bank Christine Lagarde talks to John Dickerson about the dangers facing the global economy. Denise Schrier Cetta is the producer.
THE COLUMBUS LETTERS – A letter written by Christopher Columbus describing his discovery of the Americas became the world’s first best seller when it was printed and distributed throughout Europe more than 500 years ago. Now the surviving copies are so rare and valuable, they’re being stolen and replaced with forgeries. Jon Wertheim reports. Katherine Davis is the producer.
Jewish leaders who lost congregants in the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history say armed guards should be present at synagogues. Their opinions are part of a Lesley Stahl report from Pittsburgh, a city that has rallied to support Tree of Life synagogue a year after 11 worshippers were murdered inside the building. Stahl’s story will be broadcast on 60 MINUTES Sunday, Oct. 20 (7:00-8:00 PM, ET/PT) on the CBS Television Network.
A gunman carrying three handguns and an AR-15 who had posted anti-Semitic rants on social media carried out the deadly attack on Oct. 27, 2018. In addition to the 11 dead, two congregants and five first responders were injured. The building is actually home to three separate and distinct congregations: Tree of Life, Dor Hadash, and New Light. All suffered losses. And all have struggled in the past year to make sense and meaning of the tragedy that upended their lives and sanctuary. New Light co-president Stephen Cohen says he doesn’t believe his congregation should become active “as a congregation” in the gun control debate. But in a joint interview with New Light’s Rabbi, Jonathan Perlman, both agreed on the need to protect congregants physically. Both unhesitatingly answer “yes” when Stahl asks whether every single synagogue in the U.S. should have an armed guard.
“What were we thinking? We thought we’re so safe in America?” asks Perlman. “Every single synagogue in Europe has an armed guard. The tragedy is that, you know, it shouldn’t be an act of courage to enter a house of worship,” he says.
Support from the city in the immediate aftermath of the massacre included public shows of solidarity with signs and stickers posted all over town, a huge makeshift memorial in front of the synagogue, moments of silence at sports events and interfaith vigils. Stahl interviewed Wasi Mohamed, the lay leader of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh. The mosque jumped to help and raise burial money for their Jewish neighbors. Mohamed tells Stahl his community can relate to this tragedy. “We understand this more so than a lot of communities do unfortunately. We can understand this pain and the fear of lack of security,” says Mohamed. He says attacking people where they would expect to be at their safest is not a new tactic. “Black churches have never been safe…mosques have never been safe in this country. Synagogues have always been targets. It’s been used as a fear tactic against our communities for generations since this country was founded. [The message is] ‘If you’re not safe in this sanctuary, you’re just not safe here, leave.’”
Members of Tree of Life were quick to reciprocate. When a gunman killed 51 worshippers at mosques in New Zealand last March, Pittsburgh Jews responded by standing guard and vigil outside the mosque. “We’ve had Jewish community members outside the Islamic center holding signs, saying they love us, they welcome us…It’s special,” says Mohamed.