Rare stolen Swedish atlas recovered at NYC gallery

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NEW YORK (AP) — A rare atlas stolen a decade ago from the Royal Library of Sweden by one of its chief librarians was recovered in New York and given back to its rightful owner.

Swedish and U.S. authorities showed off the 415-year-old Wytfliet Atlas at a news conference Wednesday. The book, created by Cornelius van Wytfliet and containing the earliest maps of the Americas, had been in the Royal Library collection for more than 300 years before it was stolen. There are only eight other copies worldwide, according to the library.

The atlas was one of 56 rare books stolen by Anders Burius, the chief of the Royal Library’s manuscript department, and the first of his haul to be located.

Burius stole the books between 1995 and 2004, nearly the entire time of his employment there, and later committed suicide, said Steven Feldman of the New York firm of Herrick, Feinstein LLP, representing the library.

Burius confessed after learning that the library was undertaking an inventory due to suspicions of theft. He was arrested in 2004 and during temporary release from custody, he slit his wrists and cut a gas line to his kitchen stove, sparking an explosion in his Stockholm neighborhood that resulted in about a dozen injuries.

The 1597 book “has been available to the kings and queens of Sweden,” said Greger Bergvall, the library’s map librarian. “It’s important because it’s the only copy of the Wytfliet Atlas in Sweden.”

The atlas contains 19 maps, including the first printed map of what was then considered California, correctly depicting a peninsula, Bergvall said. Other ancient maps, he said, portrayed California as an island. The peninsula portion is now Mexico’s Baja California.

Bergvall said the atlas survived a devastating 1697 fire that destroyed about 18,000 of the library’s 23,000 tomes. Today, he said, the library houses approximately 7 million books.

In June 2011, the Royal Library discovered that the atlas was being offered for sale by Arader Galleries. The New York map dealer, who had been unaware of the book’s provenance, returned it to Sotheby’s in London, where he had purchased it in early 2000. Feldman said Sotheby’s, which had bought it from a London rare book dealer, turned it over to the Royal Library on June 15.

Feldman said Burius sold all the books under an alias and rubbed out markings that would identify their provenance.

Officials said they chose to announce the atlas’ recovery in New York because it was discovered there.

The investigation into the 55 other missing books is ongoing and is being assisted by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. They include a 1663 edition of John Donne’s poems, Joseph Scott’s United States gazetteer from 1795 and a 1651 copy of Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical masterwork, “Leviathan.”

“We have leads on a number of them,” Feldman said, adding that all the stolen volumes had been sold through Ketter Kunst, a German auction house.

“They went all over the world from the auction,” he said.