Map thievery a tale of charts and crime

September 17, 2000|By Jim Fish | By Jim Fish,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime," by Miles Harvey. Random House. 405 pages. $24.95.

It is hard to imagine something more troubling to book lovers than a true story about a thief who not only steals and sells antique maps but mutilates irreplaceable volumes to do so. The subject matter and its title, "The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime," might give one the impression that this is a dull, scholarly work. Not so.

When Miles Harvey began his investigation, it was intended to be a six-week project for a feature magazine article. Instead, this became a four-year adventure that he enthusiastically and capably shares with the reader.

The book essentially has two parts. First, there is the crime story. The author traces the sordid history of map thief Gilbert Bland and the many fake identities he used to gain access to rare book rooms. In the mid-1990s, Bland pillaged at least 17 unsuspecting libraries in the United States and Canada, razor-blading at least 250 maps from rare books. The maps had an estimated value of half a million dollars.

This crime spree has an interesting local element since it was at Baltimore's own Peabody Library that a keen-eyed patron grew suspicious of Bland, an observation that began a chain of events that led to his eventual arrest.

While the author does an excellent job of explaining the thefts, their investigation and judicial proceedings, it is the addition of a second part that makes "The Island of Lost Maps" compelling for the general reader and not just for those interested in crime, cartography or rare books. In a clever and entertaining way, Harvey shares much of what he learned about related subjects during his four-year adventure.

Woven through the crime tale is a wonderful array of interesting facts and observations documented with 40 pages of footnotes. Included are a brief history of mapmaking, a section on cartographic crime, the importance of maps throughout history, an introduction into the world of antique map collecting and observations about the fine work being done by librarians to collect and preserve rare materials while criticizing them for lax security.

The reader learns about the explosion in value of rare books and documents that makes libraries so vulnerable. This is illustrated by the author's recounting a Sotheby auction at which an item purchased for $42,500 in 1984 was sold for $1,150,000 just 15 years later.

Adding to the substance and entertainment value of the book are a variety of historical references, including the fact that no individual in ancient Rome was allowed to possess a map, the map-stealing of Christopher Columbus' brother, and the efforts of John C. Fremont (the first Republican presidential nominee) to explore and map the American West.

For literary buffs there is discussion of maps and their influence on imagination. One is interested to learn, for example, that Robert Louis Stevenson sketched a map of shorelines before he began writing "Treasure Island." He felt that the map created his plot and colorful characters.

By blending just the right amount of varied detail into his work, it is as if Miles Harvey has become an excellent mapmaker himself.

Jim Fish, director of the Baltimore County Public Library, has 29 years of experience as a library director and holds an undergraduate degree in American history as well as masters' degrees in library science and business administration.

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