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New York Map Society Missing Maps

The Missing Maps feature (below) was first posted in 2006, and its “Master List” of missing maps is now quite obsolete. Nevertheless, the list continues to draw several hundred views per month, indicating some interest by the general public, if not by the institutions who have been victimized by various map thieves.

Accordingly, the subject of missing maps has been given its own section on this site, and additional information will be added as time and resources permit.—JW.

Tony Campbell

News About Map Thefts

Tony Campbell, Map Librarian (retired), British Library maintains a page of News Stories and links to web pages related to map thefts.

John Woram

Missing Maps

The 2006 court case—United States of America v. Edward Forbes Smiley III—has drawn attention to worldwide map thefts. The purpose of this feature is to offer the non-specialist viewer some insight into the magnitude of the problem. Although Smiley has admitted to some of these thefts, he has not been convicted of the thefts of all missing items listed in the accompanying tables.

Missing and Stolen Maps Database

In early 2008, IAMA (International Antiquarian Mapsellers Association) voted to provide funding for the development and maintenance of a Missing and Stolen Map Database. At the moment (), there are only three maps listed, but presumably more will be added in the future.

NOTE: Despite the Registration link at the bottom of the page, it is not necessary to register in order to view the “Browse & Search Maps” page, accessible via a tab at the top of the IAMA home page.

“Rare map of Canada under scrutiny after Harvard thefts”

On one hand, this report might be considered “old news” now that the auction mentioned below has come to a successful conclusion. But on the other, it serves as a running commentary on a sensitive subject, and if all goes well will eventually lead to more on the subject of stolen and legitimate copies of a rare map, and on how to tell one from the other.

October 12, 2008: According to News Reporter Randy Boswell (Canwest News Service), writing in today's Calgary Herald,

A rare print of a 396-year-old map of Canada created by French explorer Samuel de Champlain—and billed by Sotheby's as “perhaps the most important single map” in Canadian history—is to be auctioned next month [November 13] in Britain for up to $80,000.

Read complete News Report at Calgary Herald web site.

In London, Tony Campbell (British Library Map Librarian, retired) offered the following comments:

What is described misleadingly as the “vintage reproduction” of the 1612 Champlain map of Nouvelle France is one of the originals reported missing by Harvard in the wake of the Forbes Smiley thefts. It did not appear on the list of his admitted thefts. Harvard is currently checking digital photographs and considering sending somebody to London to check in person.

A Sotheby's spokesman said the map being sold was checked—as all items are before sale—against a U.S.-based lost art registry† that tracks missing artworks and other cultural artifacts from around the world. Clearly Sotheby's are unaware of the efforts made to identify and then publicise the maps found missing in those collections visited by Smiley, information brought together by John Woram into a single database.‡ That the large number of those maps still unaccounted for are not also included in the New Database, specifically for maps, set up by IAMA (International Antiquarian Mapsellers Association) is not for want of urging by Joel Kovarsky, who manages that vital tool in the fight against thefts.

† The missing Harvard map was listed in a “Missing Map Alert” posted in August, 2006, and again in the database cited in the note which follows. Is this listing not in the “U.S.-based lost art registry” cited by Sotheby's? And if not, why not?

‡ This database was prepared in late November, 2006. Listed institutions have declined comment, nor have they reported items recovered since the lists were published. Therefore, it should be understood that these lists are no longer accurate indicators of the status of maps missing and/or recovered. In fact, the lists' only real value now is to serve as a historical record, and perhaps be used as a template in the future, if and when institutions feel there is some value in working together.


October 14: “After a comparative assessment of digital copies of the missing Harvard map and the map Sotheby's will auction, Houghton Library curators have found enough discrepancies to believe that the one for sale is not the one missing from Harvard. Harvard and Sotheby's are collaborating on possible further steps.”

John Overholt, Assistant Curator
The Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson/Early Modern Books and Manuscripts
Houghton Library
Harvard University

Updated News Report by Randy Boswell, on Vancouver Sun web site.

Good news and bad news, for Sotheby's and Harvard respectively. At the former, clients needn't fear bidding on an item stolen from the university; at the latter, the Champlain map is still among the missing. Let's hope that Harvard's digital image will eventually lead to the recovery of their map.

The map to be auctioned is shown below. If possible, a side-by-side comparison with the Harvard map will be added as soon as possbile. [But see October 21 postscript below.]

Carte geographiqve de la novvelle Franse faictte par le sievr de Champlain Saint Tongois cappitaine ordinaire povr le roy en la marine (Courtesy Sotheby's).

October 21: Harvard's current Maps Missing page reports only three maps missing from the Houghton Library. The page was apparently last updated on September 28, 2007, and it displays a low-resolution image of the Champlain map. Harvard has not responded to a request for the high-resolution image needed to point out distinguishing characteristics that would help identify the missing map, should it turn up somewhere.

November 13: Today's Sotheby's Auction listing shows the map fetched somewhat more than was anticipated.


Harvard's non-response is really nothing new: In the past, other institutions have declined to make images of missing property available, pleading the “sensitive” nature of the matter. To the layperson, this makes about as much sense as withholding a photo of a missing child, on the grounds that kidnapping is a sensitive matter. It certainly is, but thanks to photography at least a few victims have been rescued. And on another front, the America's Most Wanted TV show claims to have helped catch more than 1,000 fugitives by showing viewers what the suspect looks like.

Apparently the same logic does not apply to missing maps. Instead, the public is offered the fairly useless information that the stolen item is “Map 136” in Volume 2 of an unidentifed Collection of Old Maps.

Some observers make the point that disclosure of meaningful information about theft may discourage potential benefactors from donating to an institution that, by publicly admitting its loss, reveals its inability to safeguard its assets. That is certainly a consideration, which leaves the institution to consider the pros and cons of silence:

Unfortunately for those who think silence is the best policy, most potential benefactors are bright enough to figure out what's going on, and their reaction to institutional ineptitude is predictable. So, who benefits from silence? Who, that is, except the criminal in search of a low-risk/high-reward target?