- The Washington Times - Friday, July 25, 2003

The Louisiana Purchase cost $15 million in 1803 and, at about 4 cents an acre, was considered a fire-sale bargain. Today, $15 million is what a map of the world costs.

Not just any map, though: a “priceless treasure that we had to have,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said Wednesday night at the opening of “Rivers, Edens, Empires: Lewis & Clark and the Revealing of America” in the Library of Congress’ Great Hall.

By happy coincidence, the library recently acquired German cartographer Martin Waldseemuller’s map of the world as it was envisioned in 1507, the perfect prologue to an exhibition the library already had been planning to commemorate Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s exploration of the vast, uncharted wilds of the newly acquired territory.

The lavishly rendered cartography depicts our neck of the globe as an amorphous sliver far away from the civilizations of Europe, Africa and Asia. That sliver was called “America,” an homage to an Italian explorer of the New World, Amerigo Vespucci.

More than a 1,000 of those maps were produced in a set of a dozen woodblock prints, but the one on display in the library is believed to be the last of the lot — the oldest-known document to mention the word “America.”

The Library of Congress has had its eye on the map since the 1920s, but its most recent owner, a southern German princely family, didn’t agree to part with it until 1992.

In the meantime, cash had to be raised from private donors: New York oilman David H. Koch, Philadelphia cable TV investor Gerald Lenfest and Discovery Communications founder John Hendricks.

Congress appropriated $5 million as well, and Reps. Charles H. Taylor and Doug Bereuter were there to explain why taxpayers were asked to pony up.

“It’s something that ought to be part of America,” said Mr. Taylor, a North Carolina Republican who chairs the congressional panel that funds the legislative branch of the federal government. “Congress had to show its support.”

Mr. Bereuter, a Nebraska Republican who was a geography major in his college days, said every citizen should be proud to be a co-owner — with each having “1/280 millionth” share — to be precise.

It was the library’s “most ambitious single acquisition ever,” Mr. Billington declared after calling the map “America’s birth certificate.”

For the suavely tailored and bespectacled Prince Johannes Waldburg-Wolfegg and his equally chic young wife, Princess Viviana, parting with an ancestral treasure after 350 years was a bittersweet moment.

“It is so much a part of our family history and has always been close to our heart,” Prince Johannes said, “and now I want to put it close to the heart of the Library of Congress.”

German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, who helped in the lengthy process to secure an export license from his government for the map, explained why it was so incredibly well preserved.

“The paper it was printed on had a very high alkaline content and is almost indestructible,” Mr. Ischinger said, adding that the map’s longtime owners had the foresight to store it in a closed book where no oxygen could touch it.

After cocktails and speeches in the Great Hall, Sens. Lamar Alexander and Ted Stevens; Reps. Tom Udall, Steve Chabot, Virgil H. Goode Jr., Walter B. Jones, Paul E. Kanjorski and Edward J. Markey; National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Dan Gioia and other guests, including members of the library’s deep-pocketed Madison Council, trooped upstairs to see what the fuss was all about.

Stirred by University of Tulsa historian James Ronda’s compelling remarks about the enduring allure of cartographic exploration, they took in the special exhibition of Lewis-and-Clark-related material — engraved maps, watercolor drawings, journals, diplomatic letters, artifacts and more — from the early 19th century to the advent of transcontinental railroads, which signaled the closing of the Western frontier.

“Maps are about dreams,” Mr. Ronda said, “and nowhere were those dreams bigger than in the American West.”


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