Friday, July 29, 2016

Catching the Invisible Criminal

Review: The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey

In 1995, authorities uncovered the longest-running art-theft spree in history. Florida antiquities dealer Gilbert Joseph Bland, Jr., had finally been arrested, charged with the theft of over 250 medieval mappae mundi. Harvey's account, like an international thriller, tracks the astounding career of Bland, who is alleged to have single-handedly slashed the value of the world's antique map holdings by millions of dollars.

It was definitely an art theft. Antique maps, Harvey points out, are works of art as well as antiquities, and thus are quite valuable. Usually the maps are bound into a folio or atlas whose value is greater than any single map it includes.
In addition to being a noted architect, [Robert] Mills was an important mapmaker. His 1825 masterpiece was not only a beautiful piece of art in its own right but a work of real historical importance—the first state atlas ever produced in the United States... We can be sure that if the [Baltimore Washington] monument [which Mills designed] were defaced, there would be a public outcry. But few people would complain if someone desecrated a copy of the Atlas of the State of South Carolina. It's a pretty fair bet, in fact, that no one would even notice the crime had taken place.

The author's exploration of this crime no one notices charts a fascinating journey of discovery that also illuminates the making, use and sale of maps. It takes thousands of years to make a map, Harvey explains, because maps are compilations of knowledge gleaned by those who have gone before.
...a copy of the [Mills] atlas in excellent condition might sell for upwards of $30,000. A single map of Charleston County from the atlas might fetch $2000 or more. And, unfortunately, what collectors and dealers are willing to pay for, thieves are willing to steal.

Harvey begins with the admission that his approach to Bland's activities is not objective, and neither is his reaction to other central figures in his story. He introduces a dealer who has built a multi-million-dollar business on his connections in the art antiquities field.
I knew that, in the antique maps business, no one is more central than a charismatic figure named W. Graham Arader III—although perhaps calling him the navel of the world would be taking the metaphor too far. Some of his more cynical contemporaries might pick a different body part.

Bland and Arader are both fascinated by maps, entranced by their value in the right market, but their differences are more revealing. Arader is colorful and forceful, while Bland suits his name. Arader may have bumped the prices for antique maps to higher levels, but he is repulsed by the thefts, and incensed when stolen items are offered to him for sale. He seems especially offended at the idea of destroying an atlas by cutting out single maps.

Bland is another person entirely; in fact he is several people, none especially notable—he becomes whoever he needs to be to gain entry to rare book collections. Harvey likens Bland to the "imaginary creatures" medieval cartographers used to adorn the margins of maps. In all of his personae Bland is such a polite nonentity that even the police who finally arrest him seem unable to believe he is truly a criminal. After all, what has he stolen? A few sheets of paper?
The ghost of Lloyd A. Brown was not pleased... Since his death in 1966, [he] had led a happy spectral existence among his books... Lloyd Brown had gone to heaven, and it was called the Grand Stack Room.

And so things might have remained, if not for the intruder... who crept into the library one day, seated himself at one of Brown's favorite old tables, and... began to slice up books.

As a lover of books, I have no difficulty siding with Brown's ghost. I could hate a man who calmly planned and callously executed such defacement. But Bland is not the only such criminal. 

Harvey introduces us to an entire crew of such thieves. For example, there is a Tulane University English professor who supplemented his income by stealing five maps (then valued at $20,000) from Yale University. We meet another thief who went to prison for stealing maps, was released on parole, and went right back again to take $100,000 to $300,000 worth of maps from the University of Minnesota. A Sunday school teacher and librarian turns out to be a rare books curator for one library who stole $500,000 worth of maps from another library. Two Greek Orthodox priests are trusted users of the Yale library who make off with an entire atlas. When police track them down it is discovered that they have stolen rare books from half a dozen other university libraries, some 200 volumes in all.

How do such valuable items come to be available for thieves to steal? The book explores this thoroughly, starting with the curator who is lambasted by the library community when she sends a warning eMail that exposes her library's vulnerability to theft. Far more interesting, however, are the frequent side-trips to visit topics that seem unrelated. Harvey's own family history is grist for his mill, and so is his fear when he finally gets to speak to Bland—by phone—after the trial. 

We visit the "peculiar islands" and search for the "waters of Paradise" that are found on antique maps, and also in the cobwebbed corners of collectors' souls. When the author takes us down those odd back roads, up the mis-marked streams, and on many a "detour off of Interstate Bland," he is building a map of his own. 

Harvey's map delineates equally the well-lit pages of library acquisitions and the shadowy stacks containing broken volumes, desecrated tomes, and so-far-undiscovered thieves.