The Map Man of La Jolla


Inside a 1,600-square-foot office hidden from public view behind D.G. Wills Books on Girard Avenue, history is reviewed and debated on a daily basis. Thanks to Alex Clausen, it has now also been made. In November, Clausen investigated a map image placed online by Christie’s auction house in London. The discovery he made shook the world of antique maps to its core.

Clausen, 29, buys and sells vintage maps for La Jolla’s Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps. He moved to Bird Rock 18 months ago from New York to accept the job. He said he’s been in love with history, geography and art since attending grade school in Minneapolis. “In no other field do these three subjects come together as completely as they do in cartography,” Clausen says, “and when you have three passions that come together, you can spend 24 hours a day doing it and not get tired of it.”

The image Clausen scoured wasn’t just of any old map but among the world’s most famous. It is believed to be the first to use the name “America” (after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci). “After that, interestingly enough, they decided that America was probably the wrong name for it, because they wanted to give Columbus credit,” Clausen says. “But America stuck — in part because of this map.”

In 1507, German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller produced his then-revolutionary guide to the shape of the world’s continents as a wall map. (The only known copy hangs in the U.S. Library of Congress.) But he also printed several sets of irregularly shaped panels, called “gores,” designed to interlock into spheres when glued onto the correct-sized globes. (Waldseemuller confirmed the existence of these gores in his writings.)

Four original Waldseemuller gore sets were originally thought to exist. The first was rediscovered in 1871 and resides in the University of Minnesota’s James Ford Bell Library. Four others are housed around Europe, including at the Bavarian State Library. (One sold at auction to for $1,002,267, a world record price for a single sheet map, in 2005.)

When Christie’s of London announced that a fifth original gore set, discovered in the collection of a deceased English paper restorer, was headed for auction, Clausen couldn’t get to his office computer quickly enough. Before he working as an authenticator for dealers and auction houses in London and New York, Clausen was a map-obsessed adolescent staring at the University of Minnesota’s Waldseemuller’s gores for hours at a clip. “It’s probably the most important map ever made,” he says, “and it was only a short drive away.”

What Clausen discovered was that a tiny blob of white dirt covering the top portion of three letters on the University of Minnesota’s print translated to deleted information the Christie’s copy. “Someone used a photo to recreate a new plate that they pushed into the paper with ink,” he explains, guessing the date of the crime to be in the 1940s or ’50s.

Clausen also discovered more fine wavy lines, representing ocean waves, on the University of Minnesota print than on the Christie’s print. But he also discovered something much more astounding. Clausen places an image of three gore sets, side by side, on his computer to demonstrate. The one on the left is from Minnesota, the one in the middle from Christie’s, and the one on the right from the Bavarian State Library. “You can see a real difference between the two on the right and the one on the left,” Clausen says.

Have you processed that yet? … Clausen discovered not only that the Christie’s map is fake, but so is the Bavarian State Library’s! Basically, that morning, Clausen placed the Village of La Jolla squarely on the antique map map.

“There were a lot of emotions going through my mind,” Clausen says. “One of them was a sense of revelation, but also of feeling bad. In reality, the guy running the auction was getting input from a lot of experts who were telling him they thought it was right. But they were led astray by the fact that the example they looked at for reference was also fake. You don’t expect to go to one of the biggest libraries in Germany and have them also have a fake.” (The Bavarian State Library is currently undergoing a thorough examination before anything is officially declared or done.)

A Houston-based paper restorer, contacted by Clausen to evaluate his discoveries, noticed that someone had also printed part of the Christie’s gore set over a clump of glue — a definite no-no. And another rare-book expert contacted by Clausen found a mysterious white line that matched where extra paper had been added to the University of Minneapolis’ gore set to repair a tear.

“By far, Alex is the best person in the world at what he does,” says Barry Ruderman. “He will probably rise to one of the most prominent names in my trade. That’s why I hired him — to take over my business.”

Christie’s pulled its gore set. But the story is not likely to end there. The chances are good that this is only the tip of a forgery iceberg that will eventually reveal what Ruderman estimates to be other fake objects worth millions.

The prime forgery suspect is Carl Schweidler, whom Clausen calls “probably the best paper restorer of the 20th century.” In 1938, he wrote a book with his brother, Max, delineating methods that would render repairs to original works invisible to even the trained eye. “The thing about their restorations are that they was so good, people didn’t pick up on it at all,” Clausen says.

“The fact that material is still coming onto the market suggests that there is other material out there,” Ruderman says. “But this is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. It proves that when fakes come onto market, thanks to modern technology, they can now be discovered by anyone with access to a high-resolution image online.”

Wherever this international scandal leads, Clausen’s role in it couldn’t be more guaranteed.

“I did get a call from the CEO of Christie’s afterward,” he says. “That was pretty cool.”

One can only wonder if a seven-figure job offer was part of that call.

Clausen laughs in response.