Swedes Find Stolen Atlas in New York
Published: June 26, 2012
He was entrusted to guard Sweden’s cultural heritage, but instead this senior librarian spent years surreptitiously stealing and selling scores of its rare and precious books. When the thief, Anders Burius, was finally caught in 2004, the media called him the “Royal Library Man,” and his sensational crime and subsequent suicide became the subjects of a government inquiry, a radio documentary and, last year, a television mini-series.
Now, for the first time, one of the missing books — the earliest printed atlas of the Americas — has been recovered by Sweden’s Royal Library after a librarian there noticed that it was being offered for sale last year by a New York map dealer, W. Graham Arader III.
The recovery, which is to be announced by Swedish officials in Manhattan on Wednesday, may shake loose some of the other stolen books, said Jerker Ryden, the library’s senior legal adviser.
Mr. Arader had bought the atlas, published in 1597 by Cornelius Wytfliet — one of only nine known copies in existence — at Sotheby’s in London in 2003, for about $100,000, without knowing its shadowy history, he said. He estimates its value at $450,000.
The parchment volume is worth much more to Sweden, however, Mr. Ryden said. Since 1661, Swedish publishers have been required by law to send at least one copy of everything they print — whether a Bible, an Ikea catalog or a bus schedule — to the Royal Library. It contains “the memory of the nation,” Mr. Ryden explained, adding that the theft “created black holes,” and that “money can’t compensate when you have black holes.”
The Wytfliet atlas, which contains some of the first maps of the New World as well as a history of the voyages of Columbus, Pizarro, Verrazano and other explorers, was one of more than 100 books stolen by Mr. Burius from several libraries, including the Royal, where he was chief of the manuscript division.
After his thefts were discovered in 2004, he was arrested, questioned and released to await a court date. Five days later Mr. Burius, 48, went into the kitchen of his fifth-floor apartment, slit his wrists and cut a gas line. Within hours a stray spark set off an explosion that blew out the walls, spewing debris, injuring 11 and forcing 44 people to be evacuated from his central Stockholm neighborhood.
Mr. Burius had been at the Kungliga Biblioteket, or Royal Library, for 10 years before a chance request from a patron about a map of the Mississippi River drew attention to a missing volume. A library inventory discovered that at least 56 rare and valuable books had been taken, including a 1633 edition of John Donne’s poems; a copy of Thomas Hobbes’s philosophical masterwork, “Leviathan,” from 1651; and the astronomer Johannes Kepler’s 1619 work “Harmonices Mundi.”
Catalog cards for the works were also stolen in an attempt to eliminate traces of the crime.
Although Mr. Burius’s colleagues were sometimes curious about how he could afford Armani suits, silk ties, Cuban Cohibas and a Mercedes, they were astonished to learn of his systematic looting, according to press reports in Sweden.
The police later discovered that Mr. Burius started stealing rare books as early as 1986 from at least four other prominent libraries. A number of stolen texts were found in his home and in a friend’s garage. As for the others, Mr. Burius ground off identifying marks and sold them, mainly to the German auction house Ketterer Kunst, using an alias.
He told the police that he was never asked to show proof of the books’ provenance and that he was always paid in cash. Mr. Burius said he believed “that the auction firm understood that he didn’t have the right to sell them,” according to a 2008 Swedish government report.
The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers’ code of ethics says that members should exercise “due diligence.”
Ketterer Kunst did not respond to phone and e-mail requests for comment. The government report stated that Ketterer checked for library stamps and required each seller to sign an assurance attesting to legal ownership.
Once the library confirmed that Mr. Arader had its atlas, he returned the book to Sotheby’s, which fully reimbursed him. Sotheby’s, which initially got the book from a London dealer, gave the book back to the library. After journeying to the land it documents, the atlas finally arrived home on June 15.
The library is working with the United States attorney in Manhattan to identify other books stolen by Mr. Burius that may be in the United States, said Howard Spiegler of Herrick, Feinstein, lawyers for the Royal Library. It has released a list of the stolen books.
Mr. Arader, who once wore a wire to help put a map thief behind bars, criticized the library for failing to alert dealers to the stolen titles. “It’s ridiculous they did not publish the list,” he said.
He estimated the total value of the books stolen from the Royal Library at $5 million.
The library has said it did not release a list because of its investigation, although the government report notes that the police seemed to lose interest in the case after Mr. Burius’s death. The library recently registered the list with the international booksellers league in addition to Interpol, Mr. Ryden said.
In New York for the announcement, Gunilla Herdenberg, the new head of the Royal Library, said, “We are quite optimistic that more books will be found.”