Cut and Run: Cartographic Thievery
By F.J. Manasek
Book worms cannot thrive in the controlled environment of the modern library. But book thieves and book vandals can. We can control the ravages of moisture, the hydrogen ion, mildew, and foxing -- but it appears far more difficult to control the ravages of the people who access the collections. And access they must. For scholarship is the very reason we preserve these treasures, and scholarship often depends upon an intimate hands-on examination of the real thing. But this need for accessibility, while creating the raison d´ętre for the collection, also creates the climate that can lead to its destruction.
Any institution with a serious collection of things irreplaceable is faced with difficulty, but those institutions with major collections of works on paper -- such as maps, ephemera, and books -- have particular problems. Despite inadequate budgets and low priorities (nonacademic administrators often give libraries lower priorities than ice-hockey teams), institutional libraries have managed to be largely good stewards of the cultural artifacts of the world’s peoples. They accumulate, catalogue, try to preserve, and yet also have the treasures available for use by students and scholars.
Most of us assume that institutions with map and book collections take good care of them. Because of their fragility relative to, say, geological specimens or coins, these works need chronic special attention. In addition to seeing that the roof doesn’t leak, the humidity must be controlled and the pH of the solander boxes used to store the stuff must be maintained slightly above neutral. Usually all this is achieved.
More so, it is the ravages of humans that threaten our cultural treasures. Over the years there have been numerous instances of thieves stealing from libraries, and it seems that many of the thefts were the result of people who were given access to the collection. Few hacked their way through the walls. Indeed, the problem was so severe in Medieval times that early codices were often chained to the reading room tables! Some years ago a thief almost succeeded in liberating a set of Gutenberg Bibles from Harvard. The books were, fortunately, too heavy for the thief to carry in his backpack while trying to climb down his escape rope dangling from the open window (yes, this is all true). He fell, broke a leg, and was captured. However, most thefts are less dramatic; presumably they involve sneaking an item or two out the door under one’s jacket or in one’s panties, or wherever.
Recently, the authorities captured, convicted, and imprisoned a most industrious book thief who stole literally thousands of volumes from libraries and other institutions all over the country. The convicted thief, Steven Blumberg, who explained that he only took the books to preserve them, is now in the Big House, which is quite unusual.
But there’s an even more dangerous thief. However heinous the crime of book theft, there is at least the possibility that the books are eventually recovered and returned. For example, the Blumberg hoard was recovered -- all 20,000-plus books of it. But what happens if a thief wants only a part of a book, and comes armed with a razor blade? In this case the page, illustration, or map, amputated from its parent body, is far more portable than the book, easier to sneak out the door, and very difficult to trace.
Except in rare cases, even when caught, these thieves don’t get prosecuted. I don’t know why, but libraries and institutions have traditionally been reluctant to press charges. Perhaps they are embarrassed. If so, we might even entertain the thought that they should be embarrassed. Perhaps it’s because police and courts haven’t considered library theft a serious crime. "Oh come on. This guy stole books?" In reality, these acts of theft or vandalism are among the most foul. Far transcending most common crime, they violate the very fabric and essence of the culture and heritage of all humans; they are obscenities scrawled on the intellectual face of our very being.
Recently, a few illuminated leaves from a 14th century manuscript were offered to a prominent, internationally known American manuscript dealer. Suspicions aroused, he did a bit of investigation and was quickly able to ascertain, with the help of colleagues, that the pages had been removed from the collection of the Vatican Library, which had not yet noticed their absence. The man who offered the leaves for sale was an academic who had done research in the Vatican Library many years earlier.
Even our own Library of Congress is not immune. Over a period of years, large numbers of documents valued at perhaps over a million dollars have been looted. To the writer’s knowledge, no arrests have been made.
More recently, the map world was shocked to learn of the apprehension and almost immediate release of someone accused of cutting maps from books in the collection of Johns Hopkins University. This individual, Gilbert Bland, alias James Perry, also operated a business, Antique Maps and Collectibles, in Tamarac, Florida. He issued catalogues and lists and advertised in international magazines. Bland also exhibited at the International Map Collectors’ (IMCoS) Fair in San Francisco, where both he and his wife, Karen, managed their booth. Although fairly new to the map trade, Bland was allegedly able to offer for sale multiple copies of rarities in numbers that few other dealers had ever seen.
According to reports, he was in the Johns Hopkins Library examining maps in books when another patron noticed he was acting suspiciously and notified staff. When security arrived, Bland ran, but was apprehended on the grounds by campus police. He offered to pay for the damage done to the books he had savaged. At the advice of the Baltimore Police, Johns Hopkins accepted his (cash) offer, and they did not press charges. Only later did the police find a bag he had allegedly ditched, containing more maps, a list of other institutions, and a shopping list of maps he needed.
As the plot unfolded, authorities speculated that Bland was operating a large enterprise in maps removed from institutional library books. At the time of publication, the case is still unresolved, although Bland is reportedly in custody. This does not appear to have been a small operation (Bland is alleged to have visited at least six or seven institutions), nor was it limited only to maps. We can surmise that the tip of his blade was glowing red from use.
Accessibility Versus Protection
How serious is the problem and what can be done? Since collections are there to be used, individuals must have access to them. Although a balance must be established between protectionism and accessibility, access need not be quite as casual as it now is. For example, Bland had a fake i.d, and a few years ago a thief removed an atlas from Dartmouth’s Baker Library using an expired out-of-state license as identification.
Many older library collections have valuable books in the open stacks. This is quite understandable since the books may have been there for a hundred years or more. But a book with valuable plates or maps is a sitting duck in the stacks; marginally less so (or so it seemed until recently) in Special Collections or the Rare Book Room. In earlier times, some libraries would use a rubber stamp or an embosser and make an indelible impression on each map or illustration. Fortunately, this unsightly practice is not common any more. It probably did deter theft, but also reduced the aesthetic and monetary value of the items marked in case the institution at some time wanted to sell (deaccession) the item to raise money for other projects. This practice would be akin to spray-painting "Louvre" across the Mona Lisa to discourage its theft.
In truth, we do not know the extent of the problem. Until someone is caught or until a batch of recognizably stolen plates or maps hits the market we don’t, in most cases, even know they are missing. Even if we have suspicions about some items, it can be hard to determine their source and who, in reality, owns them. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, many prints, maps, and atlases as well as other works of art were ’liberated’ from the bowels of museums by disgruntled staff and sold into the gray market. Some of these already had a dubious history, having been stolen from Germany when the Soviet Army advanced during World War II. Of course, many of these items had been stolen earlier by the Nazis from private collections . It will take a while to sort out who owns what, but we do note the trickle of such things, especially in Europe, where major social upheavals seem to result in a redistribution of cultural artifacts as well as power.
Setting an Example
There is no simple solution to common theft; there may not even be a complex solution. Perhaps the casual thief cannot be stopped, nor can the aberrant academic with legitimate rights to access the collection -- one who develops an unnatural affection for one or more items. But certainly there should exist an outrage that the number of maps that Bland is alleged to have stolen could have been taken from institutions whose function was to protect them. I think what angered so many about this case, in addition to the early bungling of the authorities, was the fact that the alleged thief, Bland, operated so openly as a dealer in rare maps.
Perhaps vigorous prosecution would deter this type of crime. Few individuals who have the knowledge to identify books or maps will risk doing time in the slammer. Several such prosecutions are under way already. At the end of World War II, an American officer guarding German medieval manuscripts, allegedly stole some of them. The manuscripts disappeared from public view, but after his death the officer’s heirs tried to sell them back to the Germans, using a lawyer as intermediary. We learned recently that the American government is prosecuting the heirs and their lawyer for trafficking in stolen goods. The person who allegedly stole the Vatican manuscript leaves is also being prosecuted and could get 10 years in prison. We seem to be setting a good policy when it comes to pursuing those who steal and vandalize other countries’ treasures -- now let’s set an example on the home front. Perhaps this should become a watershed case with draconian consequences to the miscreants.
Should the collector be alarmed? Fortunately, despite the brazen activities of a few, the rare book and map world is remarkably free of shady characters. The dealer world is a small one and quite literally most of the world’s ethical dealers know one another -- character, in addition to inventory, is open to examination. Our hobby and business is truly international in scope, and it thrives on mutual trust and honor. Libraries have a responsibility to their material, their benefactors, and to society to become more vigilant. And those of us in the trade are duty-bound to be more alert. Trust and honor will then be preserved along with our cultural heritage.
Frank Manasek is a former professor and continuing world traveler, recounting some of his adventures in his book, Uncommon Value