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Land Ho! Antique Maps

Used for Centuries to Navigate Routes Over Earth and Sea, Antique Maps Now Attract a host of Collectors--and a Few Thieves
Neil A. Grauer
From the Print Edition:
John F. Kennedy, Nov/Dec 98

(continued from page 1)

"They've always lagged tremendously [behind] the prices in [other] antiques, paintings, jewelry, boats, mink coats, cigars--anything you can think of," says W. Graham Arader III, 47, an exuberant, brash, extremely articulate fine arts entrepreneur whose aggressive marketing skills have made him one of today's top dealers in antique maps. At last January's Winter Antiques Show in New York's Seventh Regiment Armory (where he says 80 percent of his business has been generated over the years), Arader had approximately $1 million worth of maps for sale. While catalogues from Arader's seven galleries (in New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Texas and California) feature maps that run as high as $350,000, he maintains a client list of some 4,000 customers that begins with those who have spent as little as $1,000 in his shops.

It is the escalating value of especially rare and desirable maps, however, that has turned the once-sleepy map market into a booming business that shows no sign of slowing down--and has transformed some previously respectable professionals into pilferers.

In its March 1997 issue, Money magazine featured a "Hot Stuff" story on map collecting, dubbing it "a new way to double your money." The magazine noted that a 15-inch-by-13-inch 1853 map of San Diego that sold for $60 in 1991 is worth more than twice that today, while the first map to call our continent "America," printed in Rome in 1507, has gone from $80,000 a decade ago to $135,000 now. Arader recalls that when he began selling maps in 1971, a classic 1635 map of America engraved and printed by the renowned seventeenth-century Dutch mapmaker Willem Blaeu sold for just $200 to $300. Now it fetches $12,000 to $13,000. The Old Print Shop's Newman muses: "As with everything else, [the price of maps] has moved along. I have to remind myself that the subway was a nickel in 1946."

Who are the people willing to pay Arader $15,000, say, for an 1810 map of the Southwest United States based on the explorations of a Lt. Zebulon Pike (of Pike's Peak fame), or $350,000 for four sixteenth-century Venetian wall maps of Europe, the Americas, Africa and Asia? Newman's assurances notwithstanding, you can guess the answer: Wall Streeters. "What do they say, there are going to be 2,000 people that get $5 million bonuses or more on Wall Street?" Arader observed last December, just before the mammoth Christmas bonuses were doled out in the big brokerage houses. "Those are the people."

As a consequence, potential thefts such as Opie's have become a major concern for scholarly repositories previously unaccustomed to large-scale larceny. Once proud of the open access to their treasures, libraries and universities are having to rethink security procedures and institute tighter controls. Among the gentlemen crooks purloining maps have been Andrew P. Antippas, a professor of English at Tulane University, who pleaded guilty in 1978 to stealing five rare maps from Yale University, and Robert M. "Skeet" Willingham Jr., the head of special collections at the University of Georgia, who was convicted in 1988 of stealing rare maps, books and documents from his own library.

The most spectacular case thus far involved a map dealer, albeit one with a questionable background. On December 7, 1995, Jennifer Bryan, a curator for the Maryland Historical Society, was doing research inside the elegant, 117-year-old cast-iron and gold-leafed stacks of the George Peabody Library of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore when she grew suspicious about the movements of a supposed fellow researcher nearby. He was Gilbert Joseph Bland Jr., a 47-year-old dealer in rare maps from Tamarac, Florida. Bryan alerted library security personnel, who confronted Bland, only to have him bolt from the building. Chased several blocks, he tossed a notebook into some bushes before he was cornered. Retrieving the notebook, the security officers found three maps worth about $2,000 inside, sliced from a valuable 1763 book, The General History of the Late War by John Entick. Bland had used a phony University of Florida ID card bearing the name James Perry to gain access to the Peabody stacks. After questioning by the security officials and Baltimore police, Bland offered to pay $700 to restore the damaged book, and the police advised the library to let him go.

In his haste to leave, however, Bland left behind his notebook. Looking it over, Peabody director of security Donald Pfouts found a chilling list of rare maps, along with the names of major libraries that had them. Hastily surveying their own collection, Peabody officials found that a dozen more eighteenth-century maps were missing from other books that Bland had requested on a previous visit. Hopkins alerted other university libraries. Distressing reports began coming in that "James Perry" had really made the rounds: in all, 18 institutions, including the universities of Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Brown, Delaware, Chicago, Northwestern, Washington State and Florida, had been visited by Bland. The sixteenth- to eighteenth-century books he had asked to see now were missing maps. They had become the stock of his increasingly active trade in antique maps.

Not surprisingly, FBI agents found that Bland--whose record included arrests on charges of possessing a stolen car and defrauding the federal government in an unemployment compensation scheme--had abruptly emptied and closed his small shop, Antique Maps and Collectibles, leaving a cryptic note for his landlord. It simply read: "See you later." The FBI, however, managed to track Bland down in Coral Springs, Florida, where he surrendered on Jan. 2, 1996.

After a month of bargaining, Bland told police where he had stashed his booty, a storage locker in Palm Beach Gardens that contained approximately 150 antique maps. The maps, together with 100 others that were recovered from Bland's clients throughout the United States, were worth an estimated half-million dollars. Plea bargains in federal and several state courts netted him an order to pay $70,000 in restitution for damages, along with prison terms on which he ultimately served 17 months. In the view of many of his victims, it was an appallingly light sentence. "He was violating the trust of practically every community in the country, committing crimes against our his-tory," Hopkins' Pfouts told writer Miles Harvey of Outside magazine.

The map thieves represent a glaring exception in a pursuit long dominated by knowledgeable, cultivated collectors and trustworthy, devoted dealers who trade in documents they revere more for their reflection of past glories than their potential for future profits.


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