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On the Hunt for an Antique Map Thief

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Hunting an Antique Map Thief

 
 
 

Maps do more than fix the location of its user within the known world.

They help make sense of the known landscape and also help define terra incognito, that which is unknown, hidden and undiscovered. Anyone who has gazed into a map’s blank area and wondered what lies there knows of the pull maps have on the imagination.

The allure of antique maps is even stronger, not just for their art and craft — renderings of far-off lands, decorated by wind-blowing gods, sea monsters, naked Amazons or other imaginary attractions — but for the possibilities that lie beyond their limited or guessed-at boundaries.  

Recalling the treasure maps of pirate tales, author Miles Harvey pins the very essence of how maps tempt their users:

If the buried treasure is the forbidden fruit of these stories, the map is the serpent, prodding us to dream of a place beyond the borders of our innocence, pointing us to it, hissing, X marks the spot. Perhaps this explains why our culture uses cartographic and geographic language to express notions of sin and virtue. We speak of a moral compass. We describe good people as following the straight and narrow. We say sinners lost their way, lost their bearings. And in our fables of maps and money, characters are constantly torn between sticking to the path of righteousness and wandering into the wilderness of the soul, populated by all those wild animals.

Harvey surveys the psychology of maps and map collecting as he finds himself on the trail of a notoriously prolific map thief, one whose raids on libraries and institutions throughout the U.S. and Canada netted him the appellation “the Al Capone of cartography.”

Harvey’s elegant and enticing book, The Island of Lost Maps (Random House), tells both the tale of a con artist obsessed with stealing antique maps and Harvey’s own obsession with Gilbert Bland, who seemed driven to steal not by inner demons or lofty ideals of rescuing and preserving the past, but by simple, utter greed.

Thievery of the Past

 

As if following the curlicues of a 16th century map’s depiction of the New World, Harvey traces the life and crime spree of a man characterized as a cypher. Nondescript, mild-mannered and polite, Bland operated under countless aliases (though his real name suited him to a T), and slipped through the legal system with aplomb (and without remorse). “Many simply had no memory of him at all,” Harvey notes.

A failed computer salesman, Bland stole hundreds of ancient maps over several years by slashing pages from rare books in the supposedly safe collections of university libraries and research centers. His booty’s worth was estimated at half a million dollars. Yet the crimes, and the criminal, never received the notoriety, nor the punishment, that a thief of Monet paintings might receive.

Astonishingly, even some libraries failed to press charges, out of laziness, ignorance of what was missing from their stacks, or fear of scaring off donors concerned about the safety and integrity of their collections — a “See no evil, speak no evil” attitude Harvey condemns.

Bland’s crimes were even somewhat dismissed by law enforcement officials trained to track murderers and kidnappers (the guy cut up some books?), but as Harvey passionately writes, Bland’s thievery was of something more than the destruction of rare objects preserved for a small audience. It was a crime against the past — all those who contributed to Man’s cultural, economic and political evolution since the Renaissance and the Age of Exploration. And it was a crime against the future — scholars and art historians yet unborn who need old maps to understand the provenance of ideas and imagination.

Trying to understand the attraction for maps by Bland and by the thief’s customers, Harvey researched the culture of map collecting, interviewing art dealers and map connoisseurs. He also examines the questionable practice of book breaking (whereby rare books are broken down into individual pages and prints, to be sold off piecemeal).

Although in recent years there were limited numbers of buyers of rare atlases, aggressive sales of antique prints and maps ripped from those same atlases created a booming market for decorative objects and wall hangings, for board rooms and doctors’ offices.

With sales prices of maps skyrocketing, a con artist like Bland needed little more incentive to become a dealer, although the prestige factor was not insignificant:

To possess what others covet — what a heady feeling that must have been for the map thief, especially after his frustrations in the computer business. Systems integration, RAM upgrades, peripherals — people may need these things, but they do not hunger after them, do not stay awake at night aching for their feel, their look, their smell. Even before his computer firm went belly-up, Bland must have known that he was trafficking in mundane essentials — the same ones everybody else was trying to hawk during the 1990s. But to be the bearer of rare maps — well, that changed everything. Suddenly Bland was golden. Suddenly he was in demand. Suddenly he was a genie with the power to grant — or deny — people’s fondest wish.

A Tragedy of Errors

Opening an antique map shop in a Florida strip mall, Bland hit the dealer circuit and, remarkably, was able to fulfill customers’ wish lists of rare items, sometimes in triplicate. But red flags were not raised, and so his visits to rare book rooms accompanied by a razor blade continued unchecked for years.

When he finally was caught redhanded outside the Peabody Library in Baltimore with four 200-year-old maps, librarians and the police let him go upon his offer of $700 in cash to repair the books he had slashed.

It was only the chance discovery of Bland’s notebook (which he’d left behind by mistake) that the extent of his crime spree was revealed. Libraries across the nation were alerted — but the thief was already out of their grasp, assuming yet another identity.

There were plenty of mistakes and gaffes on Bland’s part, but also on the part of dealers, librarians, prosecutors and judges that allowed the thief to continue his activities with impunity. Harvey tells the enthralling story with relish, and with equal parts admiration and admonition, as he himself maps the obsessions that can drive one through the uncharted territories of their own psyche.



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