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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 6)

While he thinks that many maps from the nineteenth century remain "a bargain," Arader says that "if I had to make a guess now, I think the biggest bargains will be the twentieth century--because in two, three years, the twentieth century is going to be no more. The way the interstate road system was developed, the way that the West was developed, the way that various parts of the country grew very, very fast; in other words, maps showing how quickly Florida, Texas and California grew in the twentieth century--it's an interesting story. So city plans or state plans or things really detailing the growth of those three states I think will be--are--major bargains."

As for those dubious collectors who hunt for "bargains" with a razor blade, haunting the dimly lit stacks of the nation's great research libraries in search of maps, the days of easy pickings may be over--at least at those institutions that take threats to their security seriously.

For example, the Library of Congress has responded vigorously not just to the loss of maps but to the theft or mutilation of hundreds of thousands of volumes. It has placed theft-detection tags in high-risk books, installed security cameras and electronic doors to limit entry to its stacks, instituted police patrols, and restricted the number of researchers allowed into the general collection.

At the Peabody Library--where Gilbert Bland was caught--surveillance cameras have been installed in the stacks and visitors no longer are allowed to "hide away in the alcoves," but now must look at rare books in a central area overseen by a monitor, says Cynthia Requardt of the Hopkins' library system's Division of Special Collections and Archives. Peabody was plundered of 27 maps--and got only 14 of them back. The others presumably were stolen during Bland's earlier "sweeps" of the library and sold before he was caught.

"Every library with which I have spoken has said they've tried to increase their security," says FBI Special Agent Gray Hill of the Charlottesville, Virginia, office. He has undertaken the difficult task of trying to reunite the maps that Bland stole with their owners. None of the maps bears any marks identifying it as the property of a particular institution (librarians get "sick at the idea" of stamping rare books with "Property of" notations, Hill says); and some of Bland's victims refuse to believe he sliced maps out of books in their collections--even after he told authorities he had. "Being in denial is nothing new to libraries," says Hill, who has returned more than 150 maps from Bland's booty but still has about 100 whose origins may never be determined.

Eileen Brady, a librarian at Washing-ton State University and editor of the quarterly Focus on Security, worries that too many libraries "believe 'it'll never happen to us,' and won't change their procedures. I don't think my colleagues learn anything. If you mention Gilbert Bland's name to people, you'd get a dumb response like 'Who's that?' The problem is it is only after the fact that they take security precautions."

Although Brady, like many of Bland's other victims, does not believe the thief spent enough time in prison, the federal law against thefts from museums and libraries has been strengthened, and prosecution of map thieves has been persistent. Now the FBI can become involved in a theft even if the stolen item does not cross state lines, provided it is more than 100 years old and worth more than $5,000.

"The FBI does a fantastic job of carefully and thoughtfully prosecuting the people who are stealing maps," says Arader. "It's not as big a problem as it was, because so many people have gone to jail. So people now realize--the little creeps that started doing this--that if they [try to] sell something to someone like Graham Arader, I will not stop until I've stuck you in the slammer."

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and author of Remember Laughter: A Life of James Thurber (University of Nebraska Press).

Here are some tips in exploring the world of map collecting.

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