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August 1, 2023

Harlan Crow, the recently restituted Plannck I Columbus letter incunabulum

In mid July, those following restitution news might have read about the United States and Italian authorities happily announcing the restitution of a stolen 15th-century letter written by Christopher Columbus.  Most of the many news articles which covered this particular restitution, were fairly pro forma.  They focused on the historic significance of this precious incunabulum, written by the controversial Italian explorer in 1493 upon returning from his first voyage to the so called "New World".  In his epistolary announcement, Columbus described his momentous journey to his royal patrons, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, who financed his expedition.

Portrait of Christopher Columbus 
By Ridolfo Ghirlandaio

While the series of news articles discussed that the document had been stolen before 1988, from the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice, most were written in a perfunctory way, with many simply echoing the spartan details regarding the historical significance of this document, alongside the object's circulation as outlined in the US government's July 2023 announcement, ie., that the stolen document had been found in "the collection of a privately owned library located in the United States" after having been purchased via "a rare book dealer in the United States."

Why government press announcements on the restitution of historic artefacts can be rather "vanilla".  

Normally the investigative agency announcing a restitution begins by describing why the painting or artefact is significant, and when and/or where it has been stolen.  Press announcements then move on to state when, or sometimes how, the object in question has been identified, and then might, or might not, mention who the buyer or seller were.  Usually at the conclusion of these briefs, the announcement wraps things up by thanking key individual investigators and the agencies involved, wrapping things up by naming all of the ceremonial VIPs who would have been present during the handover ceremony.

But as participants of ARCA's PG Certification Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection learn during their studies with us.  Sometimes these types of press statements leave us asking more questions than are answered.  One question being, why are these announcements intentionally vague. 

The writers of these briefings may choose to say less, as saying more might inadvertently impact other ongoing investigations. Other times, the agreed-upon press statement skims over the nominal information involving the handlers of the object for privacy considerations, or when the return is of a voluntary vs. criminal forfeiture.  

Names can also be left out when the collector or museum who previously held ownership of the artefact or artwork has consented to its seizure and civil forfeiture, but has insisted on confidentiality provisions as part of their agreed-upon settlement whereby they relinquish all rights and titles. In tandem, sometimes these settlements can carry stipulations which clearly state that by relinquishing said object, doing so in no way should be deemed as an admission of culpability, liability, or guilt. 

But what if you want to know more? And why we teach our researchers that OSINT gathering is a useful tradecraft, not reserved for the sneaky world of spies.  

One of the things ARCA strives to impart to its art crime trainees is the need to explore and research beyond what seems obvious.  To look beyond the low hanging fruit of a happy, but perfunctory, going home press release to what you might be able to find and interpret from unrelated sources.  This is useful for provenance researchers as knowing more about an object's handlers can (sometime) tell us more about other artworks or artefacts which should also be explored. 

To advance their provenance research skills, we teach our trainees how to conduct structured intelligence analysis, using a variety of techniques to efficiently gather and utilise the wealth of information readily accessible from disparate news sites, academic articles, blog posts, social media sites, search engine result pages (SERPs), and other public-facing digital assets.  We do so because true OSINT is more than just taking a stab at scrolling-through the first page of ranked Google hits. 

The European Commission defines open-source intelligence (OSINT) as the practice of collecting and analysing information gathered from open sources to produce actionable intelligence

At ARCA we provide our participants with opportunities to test their abilities in practical and advanced image and video analysis and verification, as well as fact-checking and analysis of information, disinformation, and misinformation.  These types of intelligence gathering can support, for example, national security, law enforcement investigations and even due diligence when vetting potential art and artefact purchases.  At its very core, OSINT investigations look for open (source) data which was created for one purpose but when combined with other data, shed's additional or unforeseen light on otherwise hidden topics. 

To illustrate how our researchers can glean more details on an object's circulation within the art, antiquities, and rare book market utilising only open source techniques, last month we had them start with the clues found in the July 18, 2023 U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announcement on the restitution of the  Columbus letter titled Epistola de insulis nuper inventis, Rome, Stephan Plannck, after 29 April 1493, Goff C-757 

I asked our researchers to explore a rudimentary hypothesis of whether this object's handlers might or might not be problematic art market actors and to back that up with their explorations.  I also asked them to try and explore who the collector might be who discreetly relinquished the Columbus document, and was he (or she) of the ilk known to satisfactorily vet potential acquisitions such as this historic document.

We started by documenting the July 2023 HSI-ICE announcement which featuring Special Agent Mark Olexa, who served as the lead case agent in this ten+ year investigation into the thefts of several historic incunabula stolen from Italy. 

His post appeared on Twitter on July 18th. 

In this video we see footage of the what has come to be referred to as a Columbus Plannck I incunabulum, included the screen shot captured below.  Pay attention to the annotations marked in red, as these will provide confirmations that we will come back to later. 

We then looked for earlier mentions of any Columbus letter, 1493, Plannck I.  Searching also for Plannck II, Cristoforo Colombo, rubata, Biblioteca Marciana, incunabolo, and so forth. 

"In or around May 2003, INDIVIDUAL purchased the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana's Columbus Letter-Plannck I from a rare book dealer in the United States for a sum of money."

A later United States Attorney's Office for the District of Delaware press release, dated January 22, 2020, states that this Plannck I edition of the Columbus letter has been valued in excess of $1,300,000, and is an exceptionally rare first edition that only mentions the King of Spain, while the second edition, commonly known as Plannck II, acknowledges both King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.   This press release speaks to the good faith purchase of the document by the collector, stating:

"a collector acting in good faith unknowingly purchased the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana’s Columbus Letter-Plannck I letter from a rare book dealer in the United States."

Also useful, Italian newspaper Corriere del Veneto geolocates the collector's home when describing where the Columbus document was discovered: 

 The key phrase being "in the house of a Dallas collector." 

Added to our earlier data of the document being found in "the collection of a privately owned librarywe now can assume, if the Italian article is accurate, that the collector maintains a private library, in a home, located in the city of Dallas.

An excellent article by Nicholas Schmidle published on December 8, 2013 in The New Yorker gives us a pretty thorough rundown of Richard Lan, of Martayan Lan Inc., in New York City, who sold at least Christopher Columbus incunabulum in and around this same period. Talking about Lan's controversial relationship with notorious Italian book thief and forger Massimo Marino De Caro, writing 

"Despite these incidents, De Caro’s rise in the rare-book market continued largely unimpeded, as he obtained one remarkable book after another. Perhaps his most important client was Richard Lan. De Caro told me, “He was paying a high price for books, and he had the best customers in the world.” In 2004, Lan paid two hundred and forty thousand dollars for two of the Vatican books—first editions of Galileo’s “Discourses and Mathematical Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences” and “The Assayer”—and a 1611 copy of Johannes Kepler’s “Refraction.” Around this time, Lan also paid De Caro five hundred and eighty thousand dollars for a copy of the letter that Christopher Columbus sent to Ferdinand and Isabella in 1493, announcing the discovery of the New World. De Caro was beginning to think that Lan would buy anything from him."

In May 2012, De Caro, the former director of the Girolamini Library in Naples, was sentenced in Italy to 7 years imprisonment and a lifetime exclusion from public office following an expedited trial in Italy for the embezzlement of hundreds of stolen volumes from the Girolamini Library in Naples as well as thefts and forgeries impacting other libraries throughout Italy. 

Given that a Columbus incunabulum, stolen from the Vatican Library had already been identified as sold by De Caro to a New York dealer who turned out to be Richard Lan, then on to collector Robert David Parsons, an actuary from Atlanta, the anonymously described book seller involved, who is now deceased, becomes more interesting. 

But what about the Texas collector with a private library in him Dallas home?

Further exploration turns up several articles describing the expansive, and sometimes controversial, art and historical documents collection of Harlan Crow, a conservative billionaire, who recently gained unwanted attention for having been the secret benefactor of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.  Many articles refer to his ownership of an unique Christopher Columbus letter, but none of them, that we reviewed, provided imagery for comparison purposes.  

In one article, posted to the website InCollect discussing some of Crow's extraordinary pieces, we find another important clue, as the website describes the Texan's rare Columbus incunabulum as follows:

Given that the Harlan Crow Library copy is reported (and not proven) to be the sole extant Latin Stephan (Stephanus) Plannck (Planck) quarto written “To the Most Invincible King of the Spains” [Ad Inuictissimum Regem Hispaniarum] listed as being in private hands, our next step was to confirm through OSINT means, if it was  possible, that the one described and depicted in various restitution announcements could be the same document reported as being part of Crow's private collection in Dallas. 

Circling back to our screen grab from the HSI- ICE restitution tweet, we already had clear, high resolution images of the object which had been returned to the Italian authorities.  Now we just need to see if we could find an available image of the Columbus letter which was part of Crow's collection.  

Retrieving a 2019 web page, hosted by the Bullock Texas State History Museum, we were able to document, through images, exactly what Harlan Crow's Columbus incunabulum looks like.  In a comparison of the two, we can see that both the HSI-ICE image and the museum's photos of Crow's incunabulum both have matching traits, including a unique blue binding and slight page blemishes visible on two of the respective folio leaves.

Likewise a video presented of the object's return home published on Youtube also shows similarities in the fading of the ink's patterns.

Through this exercise, we can demonstrate that taking the time to scratch a bit beneath the surface of press announcements, and then systematically collecting analysing, and interpreting publicly available information from a wide array of sources, we can begin to further explore some interesting puzzle pieces.  Ones that might lead to an interesting thread or two worth pulling regarding how many other suspect manuscripts and rare books, stolen by De Caro, were purchased by Richard Lan, and in turn, did Lan sell other material to Harlan Crow, or others which can be traced back to thefts traceable to Massimo Messina De Caro's crime spree, or might still be in circulation in the rare text and manuscripts market in the United States.  

By:  Lynda Albertson, CEO of the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art

OSINT Bibliography

‘A Look at Harlan Crow, the Billionaire Central in Clarence Thomas Controversies’. All Things Considered. NPR, 4 May 2023.
ANSA. ‘Sangiuliano, Torna l’incunabolo Di Colombo, Faremo Grande Mostra’. Accessed 30 July 2023.
Archaeology Magazine. ‘Historic Columbus Letter Will Return to Italy’. 28 January 2020.
Bullock Texas State History Museum. ‘Epistola Christofori Colom’. Bullock Texas State History Museum. Accessed 22 July 2023.
Bullock Texas State History Museum. ‘Epistola Christofori Colom | Bullock Texas State History Museum’. Accessed 18 July 2023.
Burnett, Elena, Ashley Brown, and Juana Summers. ‘A Look at Harlan Crow, the Billionaire Central in Clarence Thomas Controversies’. NPR, 4 May 2023, sec. Law.
‘Columbus Reports on His First Voyage, 1493 | Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’. Accessed 31 July 2023.
Dallas News. ‘Harlan Crow Drops Plan to Rezone Home for Future Museum’. 3 March 2014, sec. News.
Eliasoph, Philip. ‘American Pantheon: A Neo-Georgian Estate Honors National Heritage’. InCollect. Accessed 18 July 2023.
Finestre Sull Arte. ‘Torna in Italia una preziosa lettera con cui Colombo annunciava la scoperta dell’America’. Accessed 19 July 2023.
Greene, Mariana. ‘History Abounds inside Harlan Crow’s Home’. Dallas Morning News, 7 April 2023, sec. Arts & Entertainment.
Homeland Security Investigations [@HSI_HQ]. ‘For over Ten Years, #HSI Has Collaborated with International Partners to Investigate a Rare Stolen 15th Century Christopher Columbus Letter.’ Tweet. Twitter, 18 July 2023.
ILAB - EN. ‘The Girolamini Thefts - Marino Massimo de Caro Sentenced to 7 Years Imprisonment’, 17 March 2013.
‘January - February 2008 Texas Institute of Letters Newsletter’. Texas Institute of Letters, January 2008.
La Prova, Emanuele. ‘Torna in Italia La Lettera Con Cui Colombo Annunciò La Scoperta Dell’America’. La Voce Di New York (blog), 19 July 2023.
People Newspapers. ‘Harlan Crow’s House Is Filled With History’, 2 April 2014.
Povoledo, Elisabetta. ‘Vatican Gets Back Stolen Columbus Letter, but Case Remains a Whodunit’. The New York Times, 15 June 2018, sec. World.
Prejean, Jeanne. ‘Post Genesis Luncheon Reception At OMG Library Was Something To Crow About With Condi’. My Sweet Charity (blog), 14 May 2010.
Price, Courtney. ‘Christopher Columbus Manuscript Harlan Crow Collection’. Courtney Price (blog), 13 April 2014.
Schmidle, Nicholas. ‘A Very Rare Book’. The New Yorker, 8 December 2013.
Stevens, Alexis. ‘Historic Vatican Letter Turns up in Atlanta’, 15 June 2018.
United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware. ‘Delaware U.S. Attorney’s Office and ICE Recover Fourth - and Most Rare - Stolen Christopher Columbus Letter On Behalf Of The Government Of Italy’. United States Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware, 23 January 2020.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security. ‘HSI Repatriates Rare 15th Century Columbus Letter to Italy’. Accessed 18 July 2023.
Weiss, David C. Stipulation and Order IN RE: Columbus, Christopher, Epistola de Insulis Nuper Inventis, Case No. 20- ROME, Stephan Plannck, after 29 April 1493, Goff C-757 (United States District Court, District of Delaware 14 November 2019).
Wisconsin Public Radio. ‘A Stolen Christopher Columbus Letter Found in Delaware Returns to Italy Decades Later’. Wisconsin Public Radio, 21 July 2023.
World Affairs Councils of America - Dallas Fort Worth. ‘Global Young Leaders’, 8 May 2021.

April 26, 2023

The Amelia Conference - June 23-25, 2023 - Registration is now open

Conference Date:
June 23-25, 2023
Location: Amelia, Italy

Celebrating more than a decade of academic conferences addressing art and antiquities crimes, ARCA will host its 12th summer interdisciplinary art crime conference the weekend of June 23-25, 2023.

Known as the Amelia Conference, the Association's weekend-long event aims to facilitate a critical appraisal of art crimes and the protection of art and cultural heritage and brings together researchers and academics, police, and individuals from many of the allied professions that interact with the art market, coming together to discuss issues of common concern. 

The Amelia Conference is an annual ARCA event, held in the historic city of Amelia, in the heart of Italy's Umbria region where ARCA also plays host to its Postgraduate Certificate Program in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection.

The conference includes a weekend full of multidisciplinary panel sessions, and plenty of time to meet others who are working towards the protection and recovery of cultural heritage.

Confirmed Presentations (additional names will be added as speakers confirm)

Dutch Perspectives on Police Specialisation in Art Theft
Richard Bronswijk,
Head, Dutch Politie Art Crime Unit

"Proactive Protective Training – A Crime Reduction Strategy for All"
Frank Andrew Davis, MSc., CSyP, FSyI, CPP.
Managing Director, Trident Manor Limited

"Cultural Heritage:  The Canary in the Coal Mine"
Colonel Andrew Scott Dejesse
US Army CENTCOM CCJ5, Program Director, Strategic Initiatives Group 
Gabriella Corey
Restitution Researcher, Christie's New York

"The Mitigation of Protests and Activism in our Museums"
Wesley De Smet
Ghent Museum of Fine Arts
Kim Covent
Ghent Police

"Non-Fungible Tokens: Art and Crime in a Virtual World"
Saskia Hufnagel, Ph.D.
Reader in Criminal Law, School of Law, Queen Mary University of London
Colin King, Ph.D.
Professor, Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, London

"The Fate of the Adolphe Schloss Collection – Lessons learned from provenance research during the Pandemic"
Marc J. Masurovsky, MA 
Co-founder, Holocaust Art Restitution Project (HARP), Washington DC, USA 
Claudia Hofstee, MA 
Independent Art Historian and Provenance Researcher, Amsterdam, Netherlands 
Saida S. Hasanagic, MA / Postgraduate Certificate in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection (ARCA)
Independent Art Historian and Provenance Researcher, London, United Kingdom

"The destruction, laundry and sale of Egypt’s cultural heritage"
Marcel Marée, Ph.D.
Assistant Keeper, Egypt and Sudan, The British Museum

"Papyrus and Provenance, solving more than an ancient puzzle: The case of the Artemidorus papyrus and its controversial seller, Serop Simonian"
Roberta Mazza, Ph.D.
Papyrologist and ancient historian, University of Bologna, Cultural Heritage Department - Ravenna 

"Investigation and Prosecution of Museum Thefts from a Half-Century Ago"
K.T. Newton, J.D.
Assistant United States Attorney, United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania

"Title Forthcoming"
Loes Schouten
Senior Publishing Director, Brill

"Presumed Guilty: Is it still possible to create a private collection of archeology?"
Massimo Sterpi, J.D.
Partner and Head of the IP and Art Law at Gianni & Origoni, Rome

"Museums: Accountability?"
Yasmine Zahir
Barrister-at-Law, Liberty Chambers, Hong Kong 

To register for this event, please go to our Eventbrite page located here.

Conference Networking Events

Saturday and Sunday's conference sessions include complimentary morning and afternoon coffee breaks, with coffee, juices and light pastries or afternoon hors d'oeuvres to allow time for networking. 

Friday, June 23rd - James Bond themed Icebreaker Cocktail "Cena" at the Country House Monastero le Grazie  
NB: To attend this event, please select the correct registration payment option during your conference registration.

ARCA will open its conference weekend with this relaxing icebreaker cocktail at the Country House Monastero le Grazie, an enchanting centuries-old Cistercian monastery adjacent to the Church and Sanctuary of Santa Maria delle Grazie, built in 1300.  This unique conference venue is located in the hamlet of Foce, just a few kilometers outside the centro storico of Amelia and will also play host to Saturday's Gala Dinner. 

Saturday, August 6 - Cloister Buffet Luncheon in the centro storico of Amelia**
Saturday, August 6 - Italian Slow Food Conference Dinner at Il Ristoro del Priore, Country House Monastero le Grazie  (Please RSVP by 20 June 2023). **
Sunday, August 7 - Cloister Buffet Luncheon - in the centro storico of Amelia**

** Ticketing to the optional Gala Dinner and Conference Lunches can be paid for directly at the conference venues:

Please note: The Amelia Conference has sold out in 2019 and 2022.  We recommend that those interested in attending reserve their tickets in advance to ensure availability.   Seating is limited and fire-safety and COVID prevention rules prevent us from overbooking.

If you have any questions regarding this conference, please contact the ARCA conference organisation team at:

italy.conference [at]