Rare map of Canada under scrutiny after Harvard thefts

Randy Boswell Canwest News Service

Sunday, October 12, 2008

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 in Britain for up to $80,000.

But the newly offered copy of Champlain’s richly illustrated rendering of Canada’s geography as it was understood in 1612 – just four years after the founding of New France at Quebec City – is drawing special attention from experts at Harvard University, which had its vintage reproduction of the same map stolen several years ago from its antique book library.

The Harvard map was found missing in 2005 during an FBI investigation into a string of thefts from major libraries in the U.S. and Britain that saw about 100 cartographic treasures – worth an estimated $3 million US in total – sliced from centuries-old atlases and exploration journals.

Massachusetts antiquarian E. Forbes Smiley, a well-known collector and dealer of rare maps, eventually admitted to the thefts and is serving three years in a U.S. prison for the crime.

He helped authorities recover many of the stolen maps as part of a plea bargain, but the 1612 Champlain map removed from Harvard’s Houghton Library was not among those he admitted taking.

“It’s still a mystery,” Harvard spokeswoman Beth Brainard told Canwest News Service about the map’s disappearance.

She said that the university’s curators are “comparing the Sotheby’s map to a digital image of Houghton’s missing map” and “we may need to send someone to London, to look at the map” to rule out the possibility that the university’s lost treasure has ended up at auction.

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.

He added that while Champlain’s 1612 map is considered a rarity today, many were printed in the 1600s and a number have survived through the centuries.

Library and Archives Canada, the Ottawa-based repository of the country’s major historical documents, has a copy of the Champlain map, which was published in 1613 as a 44 cm.-by-76 cm fold-out accompanying the explorer’s latest accounts of his New World travels.

Museums and private collectors routinely pay huge sums for such artifacts, and the Champlain map is among the top priced items at Sotheby’s Nov. 13 Natural History, Travel, Atlases and Maps sale.

It was the first published map to show Montreal, Lake Champlain and the Great Lakes as a chain of connected waterways.

“The great map of 1612 shows for the first time the diversity of Canada’s wealth,” Sotheby’s said in its auction catalogue, quoting a cartography historian. “The artistry is overwhelming . . . beaver, foxes and other animals indicate the future fur-trade potential. There is an abundance of sea life, vegetation, and the ever-present expanse of forest resources . . . The map makes a political statement; it is not the work of a bureaucrat, but of a skilful psychologist, and politician.”

At the time the map was created, Champlain and the other top officials in New France were working to encourage settlers and fur traders to populate and exploit the new colony.

Quebec City marked its 400th anniversary earlier this year, stoking interest in the history of French settlement in North America.

The map “can be regarded as a foundation document for Canada,” Sotheby’s states.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.