The letter Christopher Columbus wrote while sailing the ocean blue back to Spain could be found in the National Library of Catalonia in Barcelona. Or so it was thought.

Acting on a tip from a confidential witness, an elite arm of the U.S. government revealed that the library’s Columbus letter had been stolen and replaced with a fake.

After an investigation that spanned the globe, an original copy of the letter was recovered and returned to Spain last week as a gesture of goodwill and diplomacy.

It’s the latest success story from the Homeland Security Investigations team, or HSI. Like the Army unit that was formed to return art treasures stolen by the Nazis during World War II, this investigatory team is tasked with tracking down smugglers and tomb raiders to reclaim stolen history.

HSI’s Cultural Property, Art and Antiquities Program has trained investigators in more than 40 countries. Since 2007, the team has returned over 11,000 artifacts to more than 30 countries. The recouped haul includes paintings from France, Germany and Austria, cultural artifacts from China and Cambodia, and dinosaur fossils from Mongolia.

Last month, this treasure-hunting arm of the U.S. government returned some 3,800 ancient artifacts, including cuneiform tablets, cylinder seals and clay bullae (amulets) to Iraq. Last summer, in a ceremony in Washington, the team returned royal seals worth some $1.5 million to South Korea.

“Stealing a nation’s cultural property and antiquities is one of the oldest forms of organized transnational crime,” said Alysa Erichs, HSI’s acting deputy executive associate director.

The Columbus letter represents a shared history between the U.S. and Spain. Published in Rome by printer Stephan Plannck in 1493, it is one of the few remaining editions of Columbus’ original report on the New World.

“The exploration of the New World by men like Christopher Columbus provides a bridge between our two nations spanning more than 500 years,” said Ms. Erichs, who spoke at a repatriation ceremony last week at the Spanish ambassador’s residence in Washington.

According to the seizure warrant unsealed last week, the letter in Barcelona was stolen sometime in 2004 or 2005 and was sold in 2011 for more than $1 million. In coordination with offices in Rome, Madrid, Brasilia and Paris, the U.S. team tracked the letter from an Italian family in Europe all the way to Brazil.

Jamie McCall, the federal prosecutor who worked on the case, said the buyer was a private collector who “bought the letter in good faith.”

“The key to the case was that the library had digitized photographs of the original Columbus letter in 2004,” said Mr. McCall, adding that the digitized photographs were compared with newer pictures of the letter.

“The most obvious discrepancy was something called ‘foxing,’ which is basically like brown spots on the paper,” said Mr. McCall. “The forgery did not have them, the pictures did.”

Special Agent Mark Olexa accompanied a rare books expert from Princeton University to Barcelona in June 2012 to inspect the letter at the library and determine its authenticity. Mr. Olexa said the library at the time “was unaware that it was stolen.”

No arrests have been made in the case. Two other Columbus letters were stolen from libraries in Florence, Italy, and in Vatican City and replaced with forgeries.

Mr. McCall, who said he could not comment on the specifics of an ongoing investigation, said that “it speaks for itself that when you have forgeries across these historic, culturally significant libraries, there’s a sophisticated group at work.”

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