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In February 1493, Christopher Columbus was sailing back to Spain, believing he had successfully discovered a bunch of new islands in Southeast Asia. While still aboard the Niña, he composed a letter about what he had seen.

The letter is not an accurate account of the man's time in the Caribbean. But it is a revealing look at how he wanted to describe his time in the Caribbean, justifying his voyage by describing the islands as places ripe for plundering.

He exaggerates the sizes of the islands, despite claiming to have measured them personally by traversing them on foot. He exaggerates how much gold he saw there (and sounding like a very unreliable narrator, he claims to have been too honorable to accept all the gold the locals offered him). He even claims to have found one island named Anan, where the natives are born with tails.

Once he reached Spain, Columbus made several copies of the letter and sent one to Spain's treasurer, Gabriel Sanchez—because, again, he was describing riches to be extracted from lands he'd claimed for the crown. This copy of the letter, valued today at $1.2 million, wound up in the hands of the Vatican, who sealed it away forever in their library of treasurers.

Or so they thought. Then in 2011, an expert in old manuscripts got a look at the letter in their archives and declared it a forgery. They'd received the letter as part of a larger collection in 1921, but at some point, someone had stolen it and replaced it.

In fact, when investigators followed up on the discovery, they found that other 15th-century copies of the letter, stored in libraries across Europe, had also been stolen and replaced with forgeries. The Vatican theft is the most impressive, though, because of the Holy See's famous security (it's guarded by angels with flaming swords, we hear).

Those investigators managed to track down the original Sanchez letter. Some guy in Georgia had bought it in 2004, apparently not knowing it was stolen goods. His widow, when confronted with the truth, agreed to donate the letter back to the Vatican, and so the US ceremoniously returned it in June 2018.

No one knows who stole the letter, or when, or how. Maybe some treasure hunter stole the letter to find the secret map on the back, so he could grab that gold from a lost tribe, who'll attack him with their tails.

For more on Columbus, see also:

6 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About the Founding of America

7 Reasons Christopher Columbus is History's Worst Celebrity

The 5 Most Satisfying 'Told You So' Moments Of All Time

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

Top image via Wiki Commons

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