Columbus letter saved for nation by court

A Spanish court on Tuesday banned a letter written by Christopher Columbus from being sold in a London auction, saying the document with a hammer price of €21 million was of "huge national importance."

The letter, written on April 29, 1498 by Columbus to his son Diego, was being put up for auction by a foundation run by the House of Alba, one of Spain's noblest and richest families.

A Madrid High Court ruled in favour of a ban on sending the letter out of the country after the culture ministry opposed the sale on the ground that it was an invaluable and intrinsic part of Spain's cultural heritage, a decision which the Alba Foundation challenged in court.

The Foundation had argued that it would use the proceeds of the sale to help preserve the rest of its collection.

It said it had chosen this letter, among the 21 Columbus letters in its hands, as it had "the least historical value."

British auction house Christie's said the letter had "an individualised content" and that it "cannot be considered one of the most important."

The House of Alba is now headed by Carlos Martínez de Irujo, after the death of his flamboyant billionaire mother María del Rosario Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart y Silva in November aged 88.

She was the world's most titled person and the owner of a string of fabulous palaces and priceless works of art.



Was Columbus actually Spanish? A new DNA study aims to discover explorer’s true origins

Researchers are restarting a DNA study of the remains of Christopher Columbus to try to settle the question of where the explorer came from.

Was Columbus actually Spanish? A new DNA study aims to discover explorer's true origins
Photo: A portrait of Christopher Columbus by Italian painter Domenico Bigordi

Was Columbus from the Italian port city of Genoa, as most historians believe? Or was he Spanish or Portuguese? There are several theories.

Five centuries after his death in 1506, this study could finally end the debate over the geographic origin of the navigator whose voyages on behalf of the Spanish monarchs between 1492 and 1504 opened the door to Europe’s colonisation of the Americas.

The results of this “pioneering study” are expected in October, Jose Antonio Lorente, a professor of forensic medicine at Granada who is leading the investigation, told a news conference.

Launched in 2003, the study achieved a major breakthrough after DNA tests established that bones in a tomb in the cathedral in the southern city of Seville were those of Columbus.

But it was suspended in 2005 because the research team felt that DNA technology at the time required a significant sample of the bones of the explorer “to obtain very little information”, said Lorente.

The research team decided to preserve the bones “until there was better technology” which can use small bone fragments as is the case today, he added.

The DNA of small bone fragments from Columbus which are stored at a vault at Granada University in southern Spain will be compared to those from the remains of suspected family members of the explorer.

Columbus in the court of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs. Artist: Juan Cordero, 1850 (Wikipedia)

It will also be compared with the DNA of people alive with the same family name as Columbus from the different parts of the world where he is believed to have come from.

While Lorente hopes the results will be “totally conclusive”, he acknowledged researchers were not certain they could obtain genetic samples from all the bones “in sufficient quantity and quality  to reach a conclusion”.

“The goal is to try to offer as much information as possible for historians and experts to interpret,” he added.

The study is being carried out with the University of Florence in Italy and the University of North Texas in the United States.