Books

Criminal contours

The Island of Lost Maps By Miles Harvey

Brian Bethune November 20 2000
Books

Criminal contours

The Island of Lost Maps By Miles Harvey

Brian Bethune November 20 2000

Criminal contours

Books

The Island of Lost Maps By Miles Harvey

(Random House, 405pages, $35.95)

Librarians and other rare book experts aren’t usually thought of as a vindictive crowd, but any mention of Gilbert Bland brings out their rage. “You’d like to cut his balls off, basically,” is the judgment of eminent book restorer Don Etherington on the central figure in Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps. In the early 1990s, Bland was a one-man cartographic crime wave, stealing more than 250 antique maps from American and Canadian libraries. His method—slicing them out of ancient atlases—was as infuriating as the thefts themselves.

As Harvey ably shows, Bland, a petty crook and unsuccessful antique dealer, turned himself into the right thief at the right time. By 1990, antique map prices were rising explosively, as they became sought-after wall decorations for professionals. Dealers desperate for stock were not inclined to ask awkward questions. And underfunded, unprotected libraries continued to grant free access to their collections.

More interesting than the crimes, however, is Harvey’s absorbing tour through the history of mapmaking, map collecting—and map stealing. Christopher Columbus, for example, financed his explorations in part through the sale of stolen Portuguese maps. The Island of Lost Maps falters near its end as the author fails to get an interview with the elusive Bland, who served less than 18 months in jail and is now back in business in Florida. But even with the blank spaces in Harvey’s map, his book remains a remarkable voyage of discovery.

Brian Bethune