Australia hands purloined 15th century map back to Madrid

5th February 2008, Comments 0 comments

Australia returns a rare world map stolen from the National Library in Madrid and sold online to an antiques shop owner from Sydney.

5 February 2008

MADRID - Australia's government on Monday returned a rare world map designed by the 15th-century geographer and astronomer Ptolemy that turned up there after a researcher stole it from the National Library in Madrid and sold it online to an antiques shop owner from Sydney.

The official handover  was attended by Milagros del Corral, the  director of the Spanish library. Specially trained Civil Guard agents will escort the document back to Spain, where it is due to arrive in 10 days, diplomatic sources said.

"Australia wants to send a message to the world that stealing cultural heritage is not a tolerated practice," said Anthony Byrne, parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, during the ceremony.

The return was carried out under a 1970 UNESCO convention signed by both Spain and Australia that prohibits the illicit import, export and sale of cultural goods.

The map, which was printed in Ulm, Germany, in 1482 and is known as the Ulm Ptolemy World Map, was one of two documents cut out of a single book in the Cervantes Room, a restricted access area within the library. It is believed that many explorers of that period, including Christopher Columbus, consulted it.

The valuable map is one of 16 rare documents reportedly stolen last year by a Uruguayan researcher, César Gómez Rivero, who surreptitiously cut them out of books with an exacto knife inside Madrid's Biblioteca Nacional, a giant repository of 25 million documents, including 500,000 extremely rare volumes. The theft led to the resignation of former director Rosa Regás and to a stocktaking effort last month to make sure that none of the more valuable books have gone missing without anyone noticing.

Meanwhile, a more in-depth investigation ordered by Culture Minister César Antonio Molina will check every single page of the 5,000 volumes handled by all researchers last year.

A police operation that began in August of last year resulted in the recovery of 12 of the 16 missing documents, including two famous world maps included in Ptolemy's world atlas Cosmography.

Still missing is another map, page 32 of another document found in Buenos Aires, and two pages from a manual on hunting and the use of crossbows by Alonso Martínez Espinar.

[Copyright EL PAÍS / SUSANA URRA 2008]

Subject: Spanish news

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