Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is primarily known for its actions taken against aliens present in the United States, usually in the form of enforcement actions (raids) conducted at worksites and residences. As the largest investigative agency within the Department of Homeland Security, ICE investigates a wide range of domestic and international activities arising from the illegal movement of people, goods, and money with a nexus to the borders of the United States.[i] In fact, the “customs” element of ICE provides its Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) unit the authority to do fascinating and laudable work combatting the illicit trade of antiquities, cultural property, and stolen artwork. Trafficking in stolen art and cultural property is a major international criminal enterprise that exceeds $6 billion in annual value. [ii]
On June 6, 2018, ICE was able to repatriate a manually-copied letter by Christopher Columbus, holding a special ceremony for the occasion at the Residence of the Spanish Ambassador, Mr. Pedro Morenés.[iii] The letter in question (Catalonia Plannck II Columbus Letter) was originally drafted by Christopher Columbus and describes the people, landscape and wealth Columbus found when he arrived in the Americas. The Spanish monarchs then forwarded the message to Rome to be translated into Latin, manually copied, and then sent to kings and queens across Europe to spread word of the discovery.[iv]
After sitting quietly for 500 years, the letter was stolen from the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona, replaced with a forgery, and sold for about €600,000 in 2005 to two Italian book dealers. In 2011, HSI received a tip that several 15th Century manual copies of the Columbus letter had been stolen from various European libraries and replaced with forgeries without the knowledge of museum staff. An HSI special agent and a subject matter expert, traveled to Barcelona and determined the letter currently held by the National Library of Catalonia was a fake. HSI was able to locate the stolen letter in 2013 and had it transferred to Wilmington, Delaware for further examination, and concluded it was the actual document stolen from the library. A chemical agent was used to bleach the library’s stamp of ownership off the letter to give the appearance of legitimacy.[v]
In 2016, the United States returned a different Columbus letter that had been stolen from a library in Florence, Italy roughly sixty years ago, that ended up in the Library of Congress.[vi] Since 2007, ICE has returned more than 8,000 items to over thirty countries.[vii] The illicit art trade is part of a global pattern that includes looting and destruction of archeological sites, smuggling of cultural property, and the sale of illicit antiquities that often benefits international terrorist and transnational criminal organizations.[viii]
Ryan Morgan Knight is an associate attorney with Haynes Novick Immigration in Washington, DC, focusing his practice on a broad spectrum of employment-based nonimmigrant and immigrant visas.
[i] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Statement of Raymond Villanueva: “The Exploitation of Cultural Property: Examining Illegal Activity in the Antiquities and Art Trade” before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Terrorism and Illicit Finance, June 23, 2017, page 1.
[ii] Fine Art and High Finance: Expert Advice on the Economics of Ownership, edited by Clare McAndrew, October 3, 2015. See Chapter 12: The Illegal Art Trade by Thomas C. Danziger & Charles T. Danziger, pages 287-308.
[vii] U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Statement of Raymond Villanueva: “The Exploitation of Cultural Property: Examining Illegal Activity in the Antiquities and Art Trade” before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services, Subcommittee on Terrorism and Illicit Finance, June 23, 2017, page 5.