In a shoe box of a library for rare books on the University of Minnesota’s campus lives a map that, against all odds, keeps landing in the spotlight.
It features a hand-drawn sliver of land, looking somewhat like an upside-down origami swan and floating in a vast ocean of squiggly black lines. On that sliver, the mapmaker jotted just one word: “America.”
This is one of only three known authentic copies of a 1507 map drawn by German printer and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. Meant to be cut out and pasted onto a grapefruit-sized globe, the map is known as “America’s birth certificate” because it’s the first to term that landmass “America” (after explorer Amerigo Vespucci).
The map “was a huge deal,” said Marguerite Ragnow, historian and curator of the James Ford Bell Library at the U. “For the first time, it showed 360 degrees of the globe with at least a nod to all of the landmasses, and it was the first map to use the name ‘America’ on any part of the New World.”
Though it’s one of some 40,000 rare artifacts related to the history of international trade and global exchange in this library, the U’s copy of the Waldseemüller map is probably the most talked-about item in the collection.
Especially now that it’s debunked the legitimacy of another copy of the map that was set to be sold by Christie’s auction house for as much as $1.2 million.
Christie’s copy of the map was an electrifying find, but soon after they announced it, printing experts and rare book historians began to question its authenticity. They noticed flaws in the printing, and what looked to be a reproduction of a tear on the copy in the Bell library.
Last month, Christie’s rare books specialist Julian Wilson flew to Minneapolis from London to compare his copy with the Bell copy side-by-side. What he saw was enough for him to remove his copy from the auction block.
“Obviously, it was a bit of a blow,” Wilson told the New York Times after the meeting. “But you never stop learning in this business.” (Christie’s did not return a request from the Star Tribune for comment.)
The incident caused a stir in the world of rare books and maps, and landed in media around the world.
“It’s better that it happened before the auction,” said Nick Wilding, associate professor of history at Georgia State University, who was the first to spot the tear on the Bell map. “It would have been pretty devastating for them if it had gone through and the buyer subsequently realized that it’s a fake.”
For Ragnow, the Bell map’s role in the hubbub was “cool,” she said.
“This is history, and these are the building blocks that historians use to write history,” she said. “It’s nice to be part of that bigger discussion that makes sure the artifacts we have in our libraries and museums are the real deal.”
At home in Minnesota
Waldseemüller is believed to have printed at least 1,000 copies of his two-dimensional globe, which appears flattened into 12 connected segments, or gores. The globe gores map was part of a set for students, along with a large wall map and a textbook about Vespucci’s explorations. (The Bell library has three copies of the textbook, and the Library of Congress houses the only known version of the wall map.)
The design for the globe gores was carved into a single wood block, smeared with ink, and pressed onto paper.
“We have no idea how many copies may be floating around,” Ragnow said, though because the maps were cut out and made into globes, most were “unlikely to survive.”
The provenance of the Bell copy can be traced to the mid-19th century, when it wound up in the personal collection of a retired field marshal lieutenant in the Austrian army. After he died, Johann II, the Prince of Liechtenstein, acquired it.
In 1950, it went up for auction. It didn’t sell but caught the attention of James Ford Bell.
Bell, the founder of General Mills, a U alum and member of the Board of Regents, was interested in rare books. Being from the milling mecca of Minneapolis, he was also fascinated by streams of trade. He launched his library with 600 items devoted to the history of global exchange.
It took years of negotiation, but in 1954, Bell purchased the Waldseemüller map for around $35,000. (In today’s money, about 10 times that.)
Ragnow said people are often surprised that the U should have such a prized artifact.
“People have such an inferiority complex, like, ‘Why is it in Minnesota?’ ” she said. “Well, why shouldn’t it be in Minnesota?”
Of the other two authentic copies of the globe gores, one is in the hands of a private collector, and another is in a vault in Offenburg, Germany. (A library in Munich houses a later printing.)
There is an additional copy at the Bavaria State Library in Germany that was long considered authentic. But as experts examined the recent Christie’s fake against it, they noticed the two looked exactly alike — indicating, it, too, may be a forgery.
Rare and visible
So, it turns out, the Bell copy is even rarer than once thought. It is now the only publicly accessible Waldseemüller map of proven legitimacy in the world. And it lives between two sheets of plexiglass, in a steel case, in a sage green box, in climate-controlled storage at the University of Minnesota.
At least a thousand students of history, art history and graphic design come to the library each year to examine some of the jewels of the collection. The most valuable items are 15th-century hand-painted nautical charts, Ragnow said.
“We have students here who just assume I’m showing them a facsimile, and when I explain that they’re touching something that somebody 500 years ago looked at and touched and read, they’re blown away,” Ragnow said.
Anyone can see these artifacts, whether or not they study at the U.
“People come in and say, ‘Just show me something cool,’ ” Ragnow said.
Of course, the Bell Library’s phone has lately been ringing over the Waldseemüller globe gores. (612-624-1528, lib.umn.edu/bell)
“It’s a snapshot of the world undergoing incredibly rapid transformation,” Wilding explained of its significance. “They’re guessing what the west coast of the Americas look like and they’re the first to capture that in handheld format. You don’t need to be an advanced student of cartography to be excited by that.”
This isn’t the map’s first brush with fame.
It drew attention when the Bell Library made Waldseemüller globes to sell as a fundraiser in the 1990s. In 2005, the Bell’s 2-D copy of the globe gores was consulted to determine the authenticity of another copy at auction. And in 2007, the map was put on exhibition for its 500th anniversary.
“It’s very unprepossessing,” Ragnow said of the map. “You wouldn’t think something like this would garner so much attention, but it’s that pesky name ‘America’ that does it.”