Columbus letter remains in limbo

Library wants collection back to sell part


A 1493 copy of Christopher Columbus' letter describing his first voyage to the New World has been sitting among the rare books and manuscripts in Yale University's Beinecke library for more than 50 years, but now the owner wants it back - to sell.

The European explorer's account of his search for treasure and a new route to Asia established his fame around Europe. Today those words could be worth more than $1 million.

Mary C. Wakeman donated her collection of 212 books and 43 manuscripts, including the Columbus letter and other works dating to the 15th century, to the Pequot Library in her hometown of Southport, Conn., in 1898. In 1952, the library's trustees decided they were unable to care for their growing collection properly and lent 1,874 pieces, including the letter, to Yale.

The trustees would like to sell some of them at auction so they can raise the money they need to house and maintain Wakeman's gift and the rest of the library's special collections.

But Wakeman stipulated that her collection "be preserved intact and fully insured." Without permission from a probate court, the library trustees cannot separate the Columbus letter from the collection and sell it.

Throughout the 50-plus years that Yale has held the Pequot materials, people associated with the Southport library have disagreed sharply on what to do. Some vehemently oppose any sale. Yet the Pequot's trustees and executive director Dan Snydacker are determined to bring the collection home.

Yale's position in the matter has further clouded the issue. In its petition to probate court in Fairfield, the Pequot Library Association says Yale told it the loan agreement must be renegotiated to give Yale full ownership of the collection. If the Pequot does not agree, Yale said, Yale will terminate the agreement and send the collection back to Southport, according to the petition.

The Pequot is not prepared to take the collection back yet. It is undergoing a multimillion-dollar restoration and expansion.

Frank Turner, director of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, will say only that "there is at this point technically no request" from the Pequot Library for the papers.

David Funkhouser writes for The Hartford Courant

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