Spanish library in turmoil over stolen maps

A real life literary thriller is unravelling in Spain with priceless documents disappearing, police mounting an international hunt for the thief and the country's cultural chief and literary guardian embroiled in a juicy political controversy.

Copies of two Ptolemaic world maps, which were more than 500 years old and inspired by the astronomer and geographer Claudius Ptolemy, were stolen from Spain's National Library, from a section which is accessible to official researchers.

The chief suspect is thought to be a researcher who had been given accreditation by the Spanish embassy in Buenos Aires, suggesting they are of Argentinian origin. But the thief is thought to have fled abroad before the loss of the maps was discovered. Four other precious written documents, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, were also damaged.

Ptolemy was a Greek or Egyptian astronomer and geographer who lived between AD85 and AD165, but his works were vastly influential until the 16th century. Copies of his original maps of the world made Columbus decide to head west in search of India – only to discover the Americas in 1492.

The stolen maps, dating from 1482, form part of Ptolemy's foremost geographical work, Cosmography, and the maps could have been stolen to order for the illegal market in stolen valuable documents.

The normally genteel and prestigious world of the National Library has been rocked further by the resignation of its director, Rosa Regas. The 73-year-old writer claimed her position had become untenable after she lost the confidence of her boss, the Culture minister, Cesar Antonio Molina.

Ms Regas told Catalunya Radio station she had been forced by Mr Molina to "give a press conference" about the theft of the maps, "against the orders of the Civil Guard, who had asked us not to give any more information to the media". Mr Molina had said that Ms Regas' three-year tenure at the head of the nation's library "had amounted to nothing" – a comment which appears to have been straw that broke the camel's back.

The embarrassment of the thefts in a library with a supposedly hi-tech security system led deputies in the Spanish Congress to ask questions about the whole affair. Mr Molina told politicans that a modernisation plan was under way which would be "very relevant" – taken as a reference to raising security.

The right-wing daily El Mundo commented yesterday: "The minister says one thing and the ex-director the other. The only thing that remains clear to the astonished citizen watching this spectacle is one is lying."

Ms Regas is no stranger to controversy. The former guardian of the country's reading heritage provoked an incredulous reaction from Spain's chattering classes when she admitted this month she did not read newspapers.

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