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A journey in search of a map thief

By MARGO HAMMOND

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 3, 2000


In The Island of Lost Maps reporter Miles Harvey goes in search of an elusive map thief with the improbable name of Gilbert Bland.

Bland was no ordinary thief. Armed with only a razor blade and a list of libraries that house books containing ancient maps, he crisscrossed the country (with forays into Canada), slipped unnoticed into dozens of rare book rooms, and then sliced up and smuggled out an estimated $500,000 worth of cartography. He sold his booty out of "a sleepy little office" called Antique Maps & Collectibles Ltd., which he opened in a strip mall in the Fort Lauderdale exurb of Tamarac, and he even dared to show up at two of the map industry's biggest conventions -- the Miami International Map Fair and the International Map Collectors' Society -- to hawk his purloined ware. In 1995, he was finally caught, the most prolific American map thief in history.

Harvey tries gamely to pump up Bland. He even dubs him "the Al Capone of cartography." But, in truth, the maplifter, who had had much more mundane run-ins with the law throughout his life, turns out to be as colorless as his name. "Bland was less of a con man than an un man, inducing mindfulness, lulling people into believing he was simply not worth much thought one way or another," writes Harvey. Or as one dealer put it: "Mr. Bland was bland. He looked bland, he sounded bland, he acted bland. There was no personality: nothing there."

What is far from bland though, as Harvey discovers, is the world of maps into which the map-grabber wandered. And it is into this colorful territory that Harvey plunges us as he tracks down the enigmatic Mr. Bland.

Along the route, we meet map dealers such as the anything-but-dull W. Graham Arader, a bombastic map mogul, whose entrepreneurial spirit has contributed to driving up the prices of old maps to their current astronomical levels. We meet map collectors such as the man Harvey calls Mr. Atlas, a "giant collector" of everything from map shirts and map ties to a "mind-boggling blur of masterpieces," including a 1915 beauty that is one of the first atlas maps to depict the New World. We meet psychoanalysts such as Werner Muensterberger, author of Collecting: An Unruly Passion, who treat those suffering from map mania.

Like any journey, there are detours to endure in The Island of Lost Maps. Like the time Harvey traveled to a jail in Hillsborough, N.C., to try to see Bland (he was being held there while he faced charges in that state stemming from a map heist in nearby Chapel Hill). Bland refused to see him, but instead of heading back home, Harvey went on a useless side trip, lured there, of course, by a map. "There, on Route 109 of my official North Carolina State Transportation Map, south of Healing Springs, north of Mount Gilead, east of Misenheimer, west of Spies, smack-dab in the middle of the Uwharrie National Forest, was . . . Eldorado." Like any explorer, Harvey couldn't resist checking out "the place that is always farther on. The land that exists only in a person's mind."

Back on the main road, Harvey travels to Richmond, Va., to meet Special Agent Gray Hill, a lanky, middle-aged FBI agent who has been given the thankless task to return Bland's purloined maps. Thankless since many of the libraries where Bland once lurked are either ashamed to acknowledge that he breached their lax security or they have yet to discover the maps are missing. Harvey, who calls Gray's office "The Island of Lost Maps," contemplates these unclaimed documents:

"(T)hey all seem to be speaking to me at once, telling a million different stories in a thousand different tongues -- tales of oceans crossed and shorelines glimpsed, of new worlds explored and old orthodoxies exploded, of empires gained and lost, of wars waged and genocides committed and people enslaved, of forests felled and cities built and borders drawn and railways laid and prairies cleared. They were chanting the whole history of the last five hundred years, the inhabitants of that tiny island, but they were also reciting another tale, one about how history can be untold with a few silent strokes of a razor blade."

Cartographic crime isn't, of course, a modern concept. Maps have long been big-time booty, and in a staggering number of cases, stolen maps have literally changed the world. Columbus' voyage to America, Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe and the invasion of Normandy all began with map heists.

Stealing maps from libraries for monetary gain, however, is hardly the stuff of glory.

"I feel like a real victim, like it was a personal assault," Evelyn Walker, a librarian at the University of Rochester, tells Harvey. "The librarians here really are curators who treasure their materials and want to make them available. Anybody in the world would have been welcome to come here and look at those maps and use them. And now they're gone."

Librarian Russell Maylone of Northwestern University is less diplomatic: "If Bland gets in front of my car, I'll run over him -- but in a nice way. . . . Oh, and then I'll back over him again."

Harvey obviously admires such feelings of rage over Bland's assault on history, as he admires the profession that is dedicated to preserve that history. "Librarian -- that mouth-contorting, graceless grind of a word, that dry gulch in the dictionary between libido and licentious -- it practically begs you to envision a stoop-shouldered loser, socks mismatched, eyes locked in a permanent squint," he laments. Instead, he says, like the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians, we should call them Learned Men of the Magic Library, Scribes of the Double House of Life, Mistresses of the House of Books, Ordainers of the Universe or at least, that "proud, even soldierly title: Keeper of the Books."

Harvey is never able to pin down Bland. "As I study my plot, I see a land whose coastline is rendered with some degree of accuracy but whose interior, despite my best efforts, is still stamped Lands Unknown," Harvey concludes. By book's end, Bland, who ends up serving less than two years in jail for his map thievery, remains terra incognita. But by then few readers will care. Harvey, after all, has immensely entertained us. As is often the case, the journey has been far more interesting than the destination.

The Island of Lost Maps:

A True Story of Cartographic Crime

By Miles Harvey

Random House, $24.95

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