First U.S. map purchased for record price

The first map of the United States, created in 1784.
The first map of the United States, created in 1784.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 10:48 PM

The first map of the United States, created in 1784, has been purchased for the record price of $1.8 million by Washington philanthropist David M. Rubenstein, who is lending it to the Library of Congress.

The Abel Buell map, named after the Connecticut cartographer who created it, has been a missing link in the library's vast collection of maps.

Rubenstein, the co-founder and managing director of the Carlyle Group, bought the map at an auction at Christie's in December. He was attracted to the map's historic pedigree, he says.

"This is the first map copyrighted, the first one to have the American flag and the first one made after the American Revolution. And it was the first one printed in the U.S.," Rubenstein said.

Rubenstein bid long-distance for it. "The day of the auction I was in a board meeting at Duke. I stepped outside and bid by phone," Rubenstein explained. "My office said I had a letter from Jim Billington [the librarian of Congress] who wanted to know if I would help buy the map. This is one the library was missing. I called him and said I just bought it a few minutes ago."

Actually, the library was also bidding on the scarce artifact. "We did participate in the bid and found out on December 3 we had lost," said John R. Hebert, chief of the library's geography and map division. The library had been coveting this map for decades and "now we can document the process of the way we came to independence. We have a printed map used at the Treaty of Paris," Hebert said.

The hand-colored engraved map is 43 inches by 48 inches, consisting of four parts united into one.

"We have never been able to add an original. It fills a huge gap," said Ed Redmond, the library's vault curator.

Created right after the Treaty of Paris, which marked the formal end of the American Revolutionary War, the Buell map shows the new country. "It covers the territory of the 13 colonies and an area east of the Mississippi River. The state boundaries are quite larger. Virginia, for example, extends from the Chesapeake Bay to the Ohio River," Redmond said.

Only seven copies of the Buell map are known to exist, Redmond said. Only two copies were sold in the 20th century. This one was given to the New Jersey Historical Society in 1862 by a diplomat who had been appointed by Abraham Lincoln to France. It was purchased in Paris.

The historical society, cash-strapped because of state budget cuts, was criticized by some in the museum field for selling this and other treasures.

Rubenstein is the chairman of the board of trustees at the Kennedy Center and a member of the Smithsonian Board of Regents. Last year he gave the library, where he is a member of the advisory group, the James Madison Council, a gift of $5 million to support the National Book Festival.

In recent years, Rubenstein has purchased several seminal historic documents. In a series of loans, he gave a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation to the White House, a rare copy of the Declaration of Independence to the State Department and the last privately owned copy of the Magna Carta to the National Archives.

"I just think Americans don't know enough about their history. Showing documents spurs them to learn more," Rubenstein said.

The library hasn't decided when to exhibit the rare map. Part of the agreement, Rubenstein said, is "they will put it on display for at least five years."

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