A rare atlas stolen a decade ago from the Royal Library of Sweden by one of its chief librarians was recovered in New York and given back to its rightful owner.
Swedish and U.S. authorities showed off the 415-year-old Wytfliet Atlas at a news conference yesterday at the offices of the library’s attorneys at Herrick, Feinstein. The book, created by Cornelius van Wytfliet and containing the earliest maps of the Americas, had been in the Royal Library collection for more than 300 years before it was stolen. There are only eight other copies worldwide, according to the library.
The atlas was one of 56 rare books stolen by Anders Burius, the chief of the Royal Library’s manuscript department, and the first of his haul to be located.
Burius stole the books between 1995 and 2004, nearly the entire time of his employment there, and later committed suicide, said Steven Feldman, a partner at Herrick Feinstein.
A 415-year-old atlas stolen a decade ago from the Royal Library of Sweden was returned to the library with the assistance of a team of attorneys from the art law group at Herrick, Feinstein. At left, Greger Bergvall, The Royal Library’s map historian, displays the Wytfliet Atlas, yesterday at Herrick, Feinstein’s offices. Looking on are Steven Feldman, a partner at the law firm, and Jerker Rydén, center, senior legal advisor to the library.
Below, pages from the Wytfliet Atlas.
NYLJ Photos/Rick Kopstein
Burius confessed after learning that the library was undertaking an inventory due to suspicions of theft. He was arrested in 2004 and during temporary release from custody, he slit his wrists and cut a gas line to his kitchen stove, sparking an explosion in his Stockholm neighborhood that resulted in about a dozen injuries.
The 1597 book “has been available to the kings and queens of Sweden,” said Greger Bergvall, the library’s map librarian. “It’s important because it’s the only copy of the Wytfliet Atlas in Sweden.”
The atlas contains 19 maps, including the first printed map of California, correctly depicting a peninsula, Bergvall said. Other ancient maps, he said, portrayed what was then California as an island.
Bergvall said the atlas survived a devastating 1697 fire that destroyed about 18,000 of the library’s 23,000 tomes. Today, he said, the library houses approximately 7 million books.
In June 2011, the Royal Library discovered that the atlas was being offered for sale by Arader Galleries. The New York map dealer, who had been unaware of the book’s provenance, returned it to Sotheby’s in London, where he had purchased it in early 2000. Feldman said Sotheby’s, which had bought it from a London rare book dealer, turned it over to the Royal Library on June 15.
Feldman said Burius sold all the books under an alias and rubbed out markings that would identify their provenance.
Officials said they chose to announce the atlas’ recovery in New York because it was discovered there.
The library hired the art law group of Herrick Feinstein, which represents governments seeking to recover cultural property, for help in retrieving the atlas and all the books stolen from the library and located in New York.
Feldman said the search for the 55 other missing books was ongoing and is being assisted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District. The books include a 1663 edition of John Donne’s poems, Joseph Scott’s United States gazetteer from 1795 and a 1651 copy of Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical masterwork, “Leviathan.”
“We have leads on a number of them,” Feldman said, adding that all the stolen volumes had been sold through Ketter Kunst, a German auction house.
“They went all over the world from the auction,” he said.
A list of the stolen books is available at www.wytflietatlas.com.