The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime

The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime
Miles Harvey
Random House
Broadway Books

The first known map was a painting of a cityscape and an erupting volcano. Found on the wall of a baked-mud dwelling in the ancient Catal Huyuk settlement in present-day Turkey, it was drawn around 6200 B.C. From that moment on, geographical representations, accurate or fantastical, have exerted a unique hold on our imagination. Every explorer, beginning with Marco Polo, has been obsessed by these powerful depictions of alluring and unknown territories. Maps have determined the outcome of battles, inspired the founding of empires, sent pathbreakers on wild-goose chases.

In The Island of Lost Maps, journalist Miles Harvey embarks on a journey, at once circuitous and compelling, into the dark heart of a map thief. When caught razor blading maps from books in Baltimore’s Peabody Library in 1995, Gilbert Bland carried a red notebook filled with priceless maps. Bland—who would become known as the Al Capone of cartography—had stolen from rare-book rooms around the country.

In documenting Bland’s crimes, Harvey sets out on his own quixotic quest. He is determined not only to investigate the motives of the map thief but also to understand his own passion for sheaves of paper depicting the world. His sleuthing takes us inside rare-book rooms, map dealers’ offices, auction houses, cartographic studios, even to the launch of a satellite that will map the world from space. At the epicenter of "cartomania"—Sotheby’s auction house—he records the bidding frenzy that caused Ptolemy’s atlas Geographica to go for $1.15 million.

Gilbert Bland, it turns out, was scarcely the first of his kind. Stolen maps helped Columbus on his journey, guided Magellan and Sir Francis Drake, and provided the Allies invaluable intelligence on D-day.

As for Bland, his moniker proved entirely apt. A chameleon of a man who assumed many false identities, he slipped in and out of rare-book rooms almost unnoticed. Harvey elucidates the carefully honed techniques that enabled Bland to pilfer hundreds of maps without a trace.

Ironically enough, Harvey explains, library theft is aided by both law enforcement and librarians. Police rarely consider map theft as important as other crimes. Librarians often are unwilling to admit that such crimes could occur within their sanctuaries. What would potential donors think? Even in the wake of Bland’s confessions, only 4 of the 19 libraries he had robbed pressed charges against him. The Island of Lost Maps is not so much an island as an archipelago, comprising dozens of seductive stories, by turns intriguing, amusing and erudite. It turns out maps are a kingdom unto themselves, replete with their own culture, history and peoples. We would be lost without them.

Get the latest Travel & Culture stories in your inbox.