Dressed in a crumpled suit, the softly spoken man blended perfectly with other academics in a hushed reading room of the Welsh national library. The one thing that set him apart went unnoticed – a scalpel.
It was only after the professorial figure returned the four ancient atlases he had been quietly perusing, politely thanking librarians for their help before leaving, that the true nature of his visit emerged. When the volumes were examined days later, six 400-year-old maps by famous cartographers were missing – each sliced from the leather-bound tomes in a quest not for knowledge, but for profit.
Under the pretence of studying the work of early map makers, such as the Flemish Abraham Ortelius, the visitor had squirreled their works away, probably into secret pockets hidden in his clothing. Within hours, the £100,000 haul of the gentleman thief was winging its way from the sedate resort of Aberystwyth, home to the National Library of Wales, and into a burgeoning trade in stolen maps. Neither the maps, nor their urbane looter, have been seen since they disappeared in April last year.
The theft was one of a series of clandestine raids on libraries across Britain and Europe which is fuelling an international market in stolen maps and costing public libraries millions of pounds a year. In the last 18 months, more than 100 valuable maps dating back up to 600 years have been carved, ripped and hacked from atlases kept in Europe’s high temples of knowledge from Aberystwyth to Helsinki, the Hague to Paris.
An ivory tower culture of academic secrecy and lax security in libraries, many in Britain, leads map specialists and detectives to believe that the true extent of missing maps in fact runs into thousands. Behind the phenomenon are a handful of skilled international thieves – at least one of them a convicted “rip and run” raider from Essex – who it is estimated are stealing up to £2m worth of maps a year.
These Raffles of cartography are feeding a hunger among collectors, many of them in America and the Far East, channelling maps from specialist and university libraries through London onto the open market.
But while the trade in stolen books, highlighted last month by the jailing of a Cambridge graduate, William Jacques, for the theft of 400 antique texts, is well known, that in maps has gone almost unnoticed.
The profits are vast. A skilled thief who cons his way into a specialist reading room can gut folios of up to 40 prints at a time and the resulting maps can sell for anything from £500 to £30,000 or more. With their bright colours, stunning decoration and misshapen representation of a mysterious world still unexplored and unknown, early maps are an intoxicating “must have” for many collectors.
The unexpected recent success of books such as Longitude, Dava Sobel’s tale of the battle to perfect a sea-going clock, and the revival of interest in explorers such as Ernest Shackleton has made relics from the history of cartography more valuable than ever.