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What can the International Map Collectors' Society
do to deter map thieves?

A message from the IMCoS President, Roger Baskes


Originally published, in the wake of the Forbes Smiley affair, in the Journal of the International Map Collectors' Society 103 (Winter 2005), pp.3-4 - reproduced here by kind permission of IMCoS and the author

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The very extensive publicity given to the alleged thefts of rare maps from many of our greatest libraries cannot have failed to attract the attention of map collectors throughout the world. We are and should be concerned about this subject for many reasons.

I hope that the most obvious is that we collectors should especially value the printed image and the printed word, their history and their manuscript antecedents. Maps are among the most important records of our civilization, and our libraries are the primary repositories of those records. The worldís research libraries are not only our fellow collectors, but constitute the primary sources of information about maps and the history of cartography. All serious collectors depend upon the curatorship, cataloguing and bibliography supported by our libraries or based upon their collections.

In fact, map collectors are a central part of a community comprising scholars, curators and other librarians, dealers, collectors, and even mere map enthusiasts. Each part of this community contributes significantly and regularly to the body of knowledge about maps and their history, which knowledge is indispensable to other scholars, to collectors, and to the literate public. And all parts of the community must necessarily have an interest in the integrity of the market for maps and books with maps.

Clearly there are practical, legal, and financial reasons why collectors should not wish to buy stolen maps. Many of these have been discussed in connection with the current publicity. Certainly, in most jurisdictions, even an innocent purchaser for value cannot acquire good title to a map when claimed by a party from whom it has been stolen. The complications of this are manifold. A map stolen from a library may be sold to another dealer, or a third, then to a collector, who in turn may sell it at auction or give it to another library (or even the victimized library itself). Running the stolen map back up the chain may or may not work-- is each party willing and solvent? Does the refund bear interest? The successive prices may be higher or even lower. Commissions are paid by auction buyers and sellers. Donors, especially in America, have claimed tax benefits. The suggestion sometimes made to secure a mitigating tax benefit by giving it back to the victimized library is at least problematical when the donor does not have good title.

I would urge also that there are significant ethical reasons why collectors should be actively involved in preventing map theft, reasons which extend beyond the criminal law and the eighth of the Ten Commandments. The first reason is also a practical one: if there were no efficient market for stolen maps, maps would seldom be stolen. Collectors themselves are likely to have occasionally stolen maps, but most maps certainly were taken to sell to collectors. But another reason, at least as compelling to my mind, is to preserve the integrity of our cultural, intellectual, and bibliographical heritage.

With respect to the thefts recently described, most of the maps were reportedly cut out of rare books. In many cases there had been only one map in the book. It should not be difficult to persuade map lovers and map collectors how essential that map was to the integrity of that book. The maiming of such a book is a grievous offense against the library that had committed to protect it, the donor or dealer who put it into the libraryís care, and all subsequent generations who will not have the opportunity to see and study it intact.

Collectors must support the rest of our community in its efforts to prevent map thefts. In the case of libraries, we must support all security measures that they can afford. It is not reasonable to object to restrictions on coats, briefcases, and luggage, or to metal detectors, cameras, and close supervision. Such restrictions have in all events become part of our daily lives, and will make it practical for libraries to let scholars and collectors continue to have access to rare maps and books. I would urge libraries to place indelible ownership stamps on the verso of all rare maps; it is not reasonable for them to protest that this reduces the mapís market value when that value is more likely to be realized only upon the mapís theft. Obviously, collectors should look for such stamps.

Collectors should support, including financially when possible, the librariesí need to identify and protect the most vulnerable maps. The maps in atlases and other books should be collated, and very valuable maps described in the catalogue record. Many of the maps recently found missing were in rare books, often in departments not under the supervision of map librarians who would perhaps have been more likely to have been aware of them. Identifying and cataloguing these rare maps will be of interest to our entire community. Some of them should be scanned and made accessible on the internet, which incidentally will further protect them. Tony Campbell has proposed a very comprehensive and thoughtful program to locate and protect these maps, and we should encourage all special collections librarians, especially those who are less map-aware, to read it here.

In our relationship with dealers, we should ourselves introduce questions of provenance. Even after the present case is over, dealers should be encouraged to feel that an essential part of their description of a map is where it came from, and when, as far as he or she can determine. And this requirement should encourage dealers to ask the same questions of their sources. When for competitive or privacy reasons a dealer is unwilling to identify his source by name, it is still not unreasonable for a collector to request as much detail as possible about the character and location of the source. Dealers should consider invoices that carry a legend guaranteeing a full refund if valid title was not delivered, although that is probably the law in any event.

The entire community would benefit from a comprehensive internet list of maps that have gone missing. Such a public list would not have to identify from whom the map is missing, but would be an effective warning to look more carefully into a proposed major purchase of a valuable map that resembles one on the list. And it might actually restore a stolen map to its owner! More than three years ago, Tony set out a detailed program to accomplish this.

These issues will not end at the conclusion of the present suspectís case, any more than they began in New Haven in June. If anything, the publicity surrounding the value of old maps will attract more thieves. I hope that map collectors will be seen to have been meeting their share of responsibility to our community to help protect both those artifacts and values which should be most important to us.

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This comment piece placed here 25 February 2006

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