Map Theft and Map Thieves

Caitlin Dempsey


As with most objects that carry a potentially large price tag, rare and valuable maps have been subjected to theft over the years.  Some of the most prolific thieves have stolen hundreds of maps over the years.  Map theft is unfortunately common and a translation of a 2008 Spanish article about the ease of map theft was posted on the ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes against Art) blog. Razor blades and stealth often play a role in the modus operandi of these thieves.  Thefts often go unnoticed for years, further exacerbating the problem of catching map thieves.  Alert librarians and patrons feature prominently in the capture of map thieves.

Lists of stolen maps can be accessed from the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers site as well as which was launched in 2008 by the International Antiquarian Mapsellers Association (IAMA).

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Miles Harvey delved into the world of map theft with his book, “Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime” which analyzed the case of Gilbert Brand, a Floridian who stole hundreds of rare maps worth over  $500,000 from libraries across the country and earned him the title, “the Al Capone of cartography.”  Bland was finally caught in 1995 at the Peabody Library in Baltimore in possession four 200-year-old maps. Jennifer Bryan, a University of Maryland PhD candidate had become suspicious of Bland’s behavior in the library and had reported him to security who confronted him.  Bland left behind his notebook which detailed the theft of 250 other rare maps.

Harvey found that antique maps have soared in popularity as collection items and decorative pieces, aided by the practice of “book breaking” which splits apart bound volumes into individual maps and pages.  Unfortunately, Harvey found that many institutions are loathed to report map theft for fear of alienating donors concerned about the safety of its collections.

Who are some of the other notable map thieves?

Anders Burius

Burius’ tenure as the chief of the Royal Library’s manuscript department from 1995-2004 was marked by his theft of 56 rare books.  Only recently has one of the 56 missing volumes been recovered.  The Wytfliet Atlas (entitled Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum) was first published in 1507 in Louvain, Belgium and was created by Flemish cartographer Cornelius Wytfliet.  The Royal Library of Sweden held one of the eight copies in existence for 300 years before it was stolen.  The atlas focused on maps of the New World as a supplement to Ptolemy’s Geographia and contains nineteen maps including one of the first printed maps showing California correctly as a peninsula.  Starting in the 1500s, California was commonly believed to be an island.

When the Royal Library started an inventory after suspicions of theft were raised.  Burius confessed to the thefts and was arrested in 2004.  He committed suicide by slitting his wrists and cut a gas line in his kitchen, sparking a fire that ended up injuring dozens after the gas leaked sparked an explosion.  Since his death, the location of all 56 books remained missing until the Royal Library discovered in June of 2011 that New York based Arader Galleries had one of its stolen volumes for sale, the Whytfliet Atlas.  The atlas had been purchased from Sothebys in 2000 which, in turn, had purchased the book from a private rare book dealer.

Map from the Whytfliet Atlas showing California as a peninsula. Granata Nova et California. In Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum. Louvain, 1603.
Map from the Whytfliet Atlas showing California as a peninsula. Granata Nova et California from In Descriptionis Ptolemaicae augmentum. Louvain, 1603.

Edward Forbes Smiley

Convicted in 2006 for the theft of ninety-seven maps, Edward Forbes Smiley was released from prison on January 15, 2010. Smiley’s sticky fingers caught up with him on June 8, 2005 when he was arrested at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library after a dropped razor blade was discovered. A prolific map thief, Smiley was responsible for the theft of almost 100 maps over the course of eight years.  Even though three maps were found on his person at the time, Smiley protested his innocence. He later pled guilty to having stolen 97 maps. According to Tony Campbell, the breakdown of confessed stolen maps by library is: Yale, Sterling Library (11), Beinecke Library (9); New York Public Library Rare Book Division (11), Map Division (21); Newberry Library (2); Harvard, Houghton Library (8); British Library (1); Boston Public Library (34). Smiley, in various statements, confessed to having stolen maps for four or seven years. He was sentenced to 3 1/2 years imprisonment onSeptember27, 2006 and ordered in May of 2007 to pay $2.3 million restitution. A comprehensive listing of statistics and links to news articles has been compiled by Tony Cambell on the Smiley Map Theft case.)

James L. Brubaker

Brubaker was responsible for ripping out more than 648 pages from 102 rare books housed at Western Washington University’s library and mostly stole maps from the institution’s Congressional Serial Set.  After a two year investigation, Brubaker was found guilty and sentenced to thirty months in federal prision and ordered to pay $23,000 in restitution to the university. University librarian, Rob Lopresti, was able to track the theft back to Brubaker after monitoring Ebay for sales of items relating to the stolen items.

Farhad Hakimzadeh

Hakimzadeh is a wealthy, Harvard educated businessman who spent a decade slicing maps and pages from over 150 rare books in the British and Bodleian Libraries.  The pages were used to replace damaged pages from his own collection of rare books.    Hakimzadeh was caught when a bore hole caused by a recorded book worm in one of the maps he had extracted was found in his residence.  In May of 2008, Hakimzadeh pled guilty to 14 counts of theft for ten damaged books from the British Library and four from the Bodleian Library. and was sentenced to two years in jail.  He was caught after another patron of the British Library noticed a book had been defaced.  The library staff then spent months examining the 842 books that Hakimzadeh and other patrons had looked at between 1997 and 2005.  Of those texts, 150 had been damaged and the sole common denominator was Hakimzadeh.  Hakimzadeh avoided detection for so long because he positioned himself out of the reach of security cameras in the private reading rooms and made such precise cuts to the books as to avoid detection.  Of note, Hakimzadeh had stolen a 16th century engraving of a world map by Hans Holbein the Younger, a cartographer for King Henry VIII. That map was estimated to be worth £30,000 in 2009.

World map stolen from the British Library by Farhad Hakimzadeh.
World map stolen from the British Library by Farhad Hakimzadeh.
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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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2 thoughts on “Map Theft and Map Thieves”

  1. I’ve been hearing rumors that historic and even contemporary maps are becoming the new collectors’ items du jour. With prices on fine art at extremely high levels, maps seem like a better investment risk in terms of their future sale value. I wonder if this will cause us to hear about more thefts of these types in the future. Meanwhile, a GIS or cartography professional might be able to make a good living by becoming a rare and historic map expert, helping investor-clients determine fair market value and authenticity!

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