'Rip and run' raiders carve up the masterpieces of cartography for global trade in stolen maps

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The Independent Online

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.

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.

Despite the Aberystwyth theft being the only publicly known theft in Britain, The Independent has been told similar raids have taken place in at least four other major libraries in Britain in the last year.

Behind the phenomenon is 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.

According to Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley, head of Scotland Yard's specialist art and antiques unit, it is damaging both to libraries' assets and Britain's cultural wealth. "It has become a very serious problem over the years – there is hardly a major library in Europe that has not been affected. Quite apart from the financial cost, it is robbing the nation's heritage," he said.

The thieves operate either to order from unscrupulous collectors or from a shopping list of the most desirable cartographers to feed their work to dealers and auction houses.

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.

Melvin Perry, a 46-year-old petty thief from Essex, however, is an old master who has risen to become one of Europe's foremost map thieves. Perry, who was convicted six years ago of stealing coloured plates from texts in the British Library and a library in Cambridge and fined, arrived in the Finnish capital, Helsinki, in February last year.

During a visit to the University of Helsinki's map collection, he stripped out a series of charts including a world map printed in Venice in 1482 and the America Nova Tabula, printed in Amsterdam in 1662.

By the time he left, Perry had a haul worth £52,000. Police noted immediately how the debonair thief had managed to steal the maps under the noses of library staff.

Inspector Pekka Korhonen, of Helsinki Police, said: "For several days in a row he spent several hours at a time in the library. Because of his smooth and polite behaviour, he reassured staff."

Perry's slick modus operandi could not, however, fool the library's CCTV camera. The thief, who was already known to British police, was identified, arrested and extradited to Helsinki.

Last September, he was sentenced to 18 months in jail for stealing six maps. Perry never served the prison term, instead striking a plea bargain with Finnish authorities. He co-operated with the investigators and helped get back four of the maps – two of which he sold to an anonymous collector and a third which he had pawned in Britain.

The Independent has learnt that Perry was wanted for questioning in connection with the Aberystwyth thefts and another Scandinavian raid – the theft of 20 maps from the Royal Library in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, last August. Scotland Yard and Dyfed Powys Police declined to comment on the investigation yesterday, saying it is ongoing.

But while Perry's activities have been curtailed, experts believe other thieves are still active and – more worryingly – many libraries are not doing enough to prevent them.

A combination of stretched resources and a desire to avoid embarrassment or not alert thieves to opportunities means many, if not most, libraries fail to report missing maps. Librarians grappling with tight budgets are also loath to confess to lax security which might deter potential donors.

Other believe it is time for change. Tony Campbell, a former map librarian at the British Library, is campaigning for libraries to drop their culture of secrecy.

He said: "The recent wave of thefts in Europe affected at least five libraries. Well over 100 maps were almost certainly taken but the only details made public were the six from Helsinki. The other maps may have passed through unsuspecting dealers' hands and have been bought by collectors, or even libraries, who are oblivious to their origin."

A coalition of map experts, dealers and librarians led by Mr Campbell now wants to set up a public register of stolen maps which would allow an institution to remain anonymous. Technology which obtains a "fingerprint" of maps with multiple copies – by scanning the paper on which they are printed – has also been developed.

But, as one senior librarian put it, no-one has yet found a deterrent more potent than this 16th century Spanish curse: "For him that stealeth from this library, let it change into a serpent into his hand and rend him. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of hell consume him."