Last Night's 60 Minutes Piece on the Stolen Columbus Letter

August 3, 2020

NOTE: I'm very excited to share some big news, and that's that I'm moving this blog to a bigger, broader venue! 

 

This blog has already been such a rewarding experience that I've decided to broaden its scope to include all of the fields about which I typically write and post, adding homeland security, corruption, election security, and, of course, art theft and security. In other words, the project has evolved into writing on all manner of security. Thus, welcome to Big Security.

 

It's been a while since I've allowed myself the opportunity to write on security writ large. Many of you will remember my Security Brief blog and column in the Boston Herald. Big Security will resurrect those efforts and I'm excited to dig right in.

 

(Lost Art Project's prior posts will remain available here). 

 

Don't worry, I'll be transferring your subscription over to Big Security myself. You needn't do anything but watch for it in your inbox!

 

Thanks,

Anthony

 

Sunday night's episode of 60 Minutes featured a fascinating story about the theft of a number of letters by Columbus from his voyage--documents described as among the most important ever published.

 

The thefts involved a daring and ingenious plan. Whoever perpetrated them replaced the originals with high-quality copies on centuries-old paper. Such an approach is not without precedent, even for paintings. In Caracas in 2002, thieves replaced Henri Matisse's Odalisque in Red Pantaloons with a forgery at the Museum of Contemporary Art. The switch wasn't discovered until a couple tried to sell the original painting in Miami.

 

The 60 Minutes report began with correspondent Jon Wertheim saying of the Vatican Library, "If there is one library in the world you'd think would be impervious to theft, this would be it." But, of course, history has proven that there is no place that is impervious to theft. Even the warehouse at the Carabinieri's Cultural Heritage Squad's office, visited by Wertheim, where untold millions of dollars of artifacts are stored, can be victimized, as it is very vulnerable to an insider who might pilfer from the many shelves of stolen treasures.

 

While an insider is typically the first place investigators would look in trying to solve these cases, one important element points away from that modus operandi here, and that is that similar thefts have been committed at multiple institutions in varied locations. While it's not impossible that one employee may have gone from one library to another, it is very probable that such a link would already have been made by investigators. Rather, the nature of the crimes points towards the likes of the mysterious Dr. Thomas Cruz who visited university libraries in North America to steal Rembrandt etchings using that distinguished alias.

 

Ex-convict Massimo De Caro was the most interesting figure in the report. Fresh off of a seven-year sentence for similar crimes involving antique books, he told CBS's Wertheim, "Yes I would like to help [the police]. If I work on it, I'm sure I can solve." He also proudly displayed to the reporter a sample of his fraudulent handiwork, and bragged that he could easily have made copies of the Columbus letters that would fool librarians. Perhaps that is so. But De Caro's braggadocio reminds me of so many con men and thieves with whom I have met over the years--seemingly coy and eager to help the authorities, when in fact what they really seek is a pay day, either from the police, a reward, or a book deal of their own based on the notoriety of a major broadcast like 60 Minutes.

 

Though the federal prosecutor working on the case said that De Caro is a "subject" in the investigation, there was little else one could expect him to say. At this point, it would be foolish to publicly rule De Caro out. But my sense is that he doesn't know where the missing Columbus letters are any better than the Carabinieri.

 

I also wasn't surprised to find that at least two of the letters had made their way to the United States, with one in Washington, D.C. and the other in Atlanta. As I've said many times, the U.S. is an importer of stolen art and antiquities, not an exporter.

 

The link to the 60 Minutes piece can be found here, and kudos to the show and producer Katherine Davis for focusing on cultural heritage theft. She's done so many times and always does it well.

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