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The Island of Lost Maps by Miles Harvey Random House; 405 pages; $24.95 The most serious problem with Miles Harvey’s otherwise excellent “The Island of Lost Maps” is its subtitle: “A True Story of Cartographic Crime.” Not that there’s anything wrong with true-crime narratives; Harvey’s is only the latest of a well-recognized genre. But although many such books happily take the reader on detours that lie miles away from the crime at the center of the book — Susan Orlean’s “The Orchid Thief” and Simon Winchester’s “The Professor and the Madman” spring to mind — none that I can think of leaves the space around those central facts as empty and uncharted as Harvey’s. Harvey’s cartography is fascinating, but as even he acknowledges, his attempt to fill in the blanks about America’s most successful map thief is ultimately a failure. That thief first came to light on Dec. 7, 1995, at the Peabody Library in Baltimore, one of the country’s pre-eminent collections of rare books. Unluckily for the man whose University of Florida student card identified him as James Perry, the only other patron in the Peabody’s Grand Stack Room that day was Jennifer Bryan, a University of Maryland doctoral student and part-time curator of the Maryland Historical Society. Trained to keep watch over people using delicate materials and bored by her own research, Bryan turned her educated eye on the only other person in the room, who she seemed to have detected tearing a page out of a book. Alerted by Bryan, library security confronted the man — who promptly fled. The Peabody security guards caught up with Gilbert Bland Jr. — for that was his real name, as he freely admitted — a block and a half later. Along the way, he’d cast aside his red notebook that contained four priceless maps cut from the Peabody’s books with a razor. But Bland was offering to pay for the damage, and the officials knew that if the university pressed charges, Bland would get bail, and they might never see him again. Figuring their khaki-and-blazer wearing culprit was an amateur, they let him go. Seven hundred dollars later, Bland was a free man — free to go back to the map and antiques store he operated in a South Florida strip mall and hide the evidence of one of the biggest map-stealing sprees in American history. Well, not entirely free. The Peabody still had Bland’s notebook, which turned out to contain an extraordinary wish list of rare maps and the libraries that held them — and according to the notes, prices, and “OKs” printed in its margins, the list seemed largely to have been filled. It soon became clear that “James Perry” had visited many institutions over the last few months, and that those libraries were missing literally priceless items. Like the Peabody, most libraries had been misled by the fact that Gilbert Bland was, well, bland, an unassuming, largely forgettable, respectable-looking patron — in short, the perfect map thief. Although author Harvey is clearly absorbed by Bland and by his motivation for the crimes, he also confesses to being “a sucker for detours, back roads, tourist traps, scenic views, and historic landmarks.” So Harvey often suspends the hunt for Gilbert Bland and leads us instead through a fascinating and phantasmagoric history of maps, their makers, owners, users, stealers, dealers, collectors, and lovers. He calls himself a “mapperist,” after Shakespeare’s apparent coinage, “mappery,” referring to “the passionate study of a map or chart.” And if you’re not a mapperist at the start of Harvey’s book, you’ll be hard-pressed to remain aloof by its end. The development of maps, of course, always depended on the state of science. Harvey takes us through the techniques that made maps possible, from Greeks like Eratosthenes, the first person to accurately estimate the size of the earth, through Gerardus Mercator and his well-known projection, still used today to depict the curved earth on a flat surface, up to the most modern satellite technology, so precise that it has managed to discover a hidden lake or two, not to mention to map the largely uncharted ocean floor. More interesting than the accuracy of today’s maps, however, are the flights of fancy in antique maps, especially those from the Age of Exploration. Beautiful black-and-white illustrations that precede each chapter reproduce some of these concoctions, decorated with the fantastic creatures that explorers imagined prowled the seas, like the beast with “the torso of a unicorn, the paws of a weasel, the tail of an anchovy.” Just as strange were the imagined inhabitants of faraway countries — Amazons, headless men, people with a half-dozen arms, unipeds, and people “who live just on the smell of a kind of apple; and if they lost that smell, they would die forthwith” — described by writers like Marco Polo (who may or may not have been to China) and Sir John Mandeville (who may or may not have existed). Maps also contained imaginary places — the Garden of Eden, Atlantis, Gog and Magog — all of which, along with the compass roses, cartouches holding the names of map and maker, trade winds illustrated as cherubs or Harpies, and hand-colored borders, make antique maps works of art. But maps were much more than art; they were distilled information — often top-secret information. The Portuguese, first in exploration in the 15th century, guarded their maps with intensity: He who held the maps literally held the key to a fortune in gold, goods, and colonies. Of course, the Portuguese were for this very reason some of the earliest victims of map theft. In fact, according to Harvey, Christopher Columbus, Ferdinand Magellan, and Sir Francis Drake were all guilty of stealing maps from Portugal, from Spain, from whoever had them. Lest his reader be bored by mere book-learning about maps, Harvey has also conjured an engaging cast of characters from his travels. True, Harvey lacks the ability to make a person appear three-dimensional on the page with a telling detail or two, but often, he doesn’t need to. It would be hard, for instance, for anyone to flatten out the personality of W. Graham Arader III. Arader is the Donald Trump of map dealers: ruthless, aggressive, self-promoting, and (by his own account) almost single-handedly responsible for making the market for antique maps as lucrative and competitive as it is today. Equally memorable is Harvey’s representative map collector, a man whose identity (and that of his valuable map collection) Harvey protects by calling him “Mr. Atlas.” Mr. Atlas appears wearing a T-shirt with a map of the South Sea Islands, but he quickly points out that the shirt “was not an accurate reproduction of any specific map but a ‘cobbled together’ representation of ‘Cook’s voyages of the South Pacific — though I’ve got lots of others.’ ” Mr. Atlas’ collecting habit, Harvey concludes, is a way of telling a story with maps — he doesn’t just collect on aesthetic or sentimental grounds, but rather in order to embody physically his extensive knowledge of the history of cartography. To further trace the psychological dimensions of mappery, there’s even a token appearance by a shrink, a dignified fellow named Werner Muensterberger, who has not only the requisite Manhattan apartment and German accent, but African phallic sculptures in the corners of his home. Muensterberger spells out what anyone with an ounce of common sense intuitively knows about collecting: that what may start out as merely a hobby or interest can grow “to the point where … moral standards, legal considerations, and societal taboos [are] disregarded.” Harvey seems to have hoped that Gilbert Bland Jr. would prove to be one such map aficionado. He likes to imagine Bland uncovering in an old storage facility his first batch of old maps, a discovery that Bland told the Federal Bureau of Investigation was what provoked his map obsession:
He takes them into the light, blows the dust away, flattens them on a table, runs his fingers over the coarse paper, admires the craftsmanship of the printing and hand coloring. And, even at this early point, he is beginning to hear the voice inside his head, a whisper from the phantom who would become James Perry.

In his introduction to his book, Harvey claims that “I was just as fascinated by the possibility that Bland was in it for the money” — but it’s not clear that we should be fascinated by the possibility. If Bland is a map thief with little interest in maps, what makes him different from a car thief, a diamond thief, or indeed any garden-variety swindler? Indeed, the available evidence seems to suggest that Gilbert Bland is a garden-variety swindler — although the evidence is very slim indeed. The fact that Bland’s form remains shadowy when compared with the robust depictions of the likes of Arader, Atlas, and Muensterberger is not entirely Harvey’s fault. Both before and after his theft trials, Bland categorically refused to speak to Harvey. Yet Harvey’s own interest in Bland never waned. This fascination with Bland’s story leads him, in my view, to ignore the simplest and most obvious explanation for Bland’s behavior, which was, not coincidentally, the explanation his lawyers used in court. A child of a broken home, Bland grew into a troubled teen-age car thief. After his 1968 conviction for that crime, he spent a tour of duty in Vietnam instead of serving extensive prison time. Returning from Vietnam, Bland seemed very disturbed — there is some evidence that he had psychological problems resulting from his posting or drug problems, or both. Soon, he had graduated to fraud, researching long-dead people in order to procure credit cards or federal benefits in their names. He served three years’ prison time for the latter offense, abandoned his first family in favor of a second, attempted to live an upright life as a computer dealer in Maryland, and fell back into crime when business turned bad, this time choosing map theft as his con game. According to several dealers who knew Bland, he seemed to have little to no enthusiasm or knowledge of maps per se — his thefts were simply a question of getting customers what they wanted. As one of these dealers put it, “It got to the point that dealers would be saying, ‘My goodness, maps of City X have been selling rather well. Do you have any maps of City X?’ … And the very next week he’d call and say, ‘Why yes, I just happen to have a map of City X.’ “ But if the origins of Bland’s life of crime are so mundane, what makes Harvey trace them with such zeal? Indeed, why doesn’t Harvey interview one of the half-dozen major map thieves caught since 1970, all of whom seem to be more interesting than Bland? The answer is that Harvey himself doesn’t know — but he makes a misguided attempt to find out. Here, the book takes a serious wrong turn, as Harvey delves into his own autobiography in an attempt to explain his obsession with Bland. In truth, “The Island of Lost Maps” is somewhat wanting as an example of the true-crime genre, but as a morality tale about the interaction between law and society it genuinely succeeds. Perhaps the most interesting pages in the book are those that trace the very factors that made Bland’s crime spree possible. The map market is, as one librarian delicately puts it, “much more uncontrolled than the market for medieval manuscripts, for example.” Maps are sold not only by scholars but also by dealers, and they’re sold everywhere from galleries to flea markets. The system that usually works for checking the provenance of, say, a valuable oil painting, seems to be honored in the breach among many map dealers; one of Bland’s own dealer-clients admits to Harvey that he knowingly refrained from asking where the maps came from. Furthermore, judges appear unwilling to impose heavy sentences on book and map thieves, and even those who receive 30-year sentences end up serving merely months or a few years. One former library security official complains to Harvey, “If you steal a Picasso or Rembrandt or any piece out of a museum, there is going to be publicity and there is going to be serious time given. But if you steal things out of a book … [p]eople say, ‘Well, it’s just a book.’ “ It is the poor librarians, eager to both protect and proffer their treasures, who come under the heaviest fire in Harvey’s account. Enter Special Agent Hill of the FBI, another of Harvey’s memorable characters, and the man assigned the task of finding the rightful homes of Bland’s stolen maps — which the thief eventually handed over to the federal government as part of a plea-bargain deal that Bland seems to have gotten by far the better of. The problem, Hill says glumly, surveying his huge pile of plastic-covered maps, is figuring just which libraries are the rightful owners. As Harvey explains, most maps don’t even have page numbers; libraries don’t keep separate inventories of maps, as opposed to merely the catalogues of the books in which they are bound; and some libraries, for reasons neither Hill nor Harvey can explain, prove resistant to attempts to match lost maps with their collections. (Several libraries even told the FBI that it would need a subpoena to get hold of their catalogues.) One map curator suggests to Harvey that it doesn’t go down well with donors to know that maps are getting stolen. Still, the librarians’ defensiveness is difficult to understand, and often Hill overcomes it only by demonstrating to curators that dozens of the maps he held actually belonged to their institutions. While Hill was hunting for the owners, what was happening to the thief? All in all, Bland ended up serving less than 18 months in prison. North Carolina, Delaware, and the federal government prosecuted him, but other states (as well as Canada) failed to act because, as one of the Peabody librarians put it, the feeling was “Well, it’s been taken care of.” In short, Bland got off rather easily for his crimes. And the librarians and map dealers and security officials — what about them? Many of the libraries, strapped for the cash to buy and house books, simply never had the funds necessary to secure their collections, but the Bland case ironically helped convince administrations that money should be forthcoming. The dealers, too, were at least in theory willing to learn from their mistakes. Three years after Bland’s initial apprehension at the Peabody, somebody at the Miami International Map Fair had the bright idea of holding a workshop on security issues in a basement conference room. Unfortunately, most of the people who should have been in attendance were upstairs, selling maps. As for the maps themselves? Most found homes, but a few are still sitting on Agent Hill’s plastic island of lost maps, waiting for someone to come and find a place in the globe for them. Beth Johnston is a lawyer and writer who lives in Cambridge, Mass.

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