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How a ‘fake’ map of America almost fetched Christie’s $1.2 million

A ‘rediscovered’ rare map, a million-dollar art scandal in the making, and some hawk-eyed shrew of rare-map historians that helped a premier auction house save face… No, this isn’t the plot for a Netflix thriller, it’s an incident that unfolded in London over the past few months.

Three months ago, a man claiming to be paper restorer Arthur Bruno Drescher’s relative visited Christie’s London office. He said he had found amongst his late relative’s papers a copy of German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller’s globe gores – a 510-year-old map, famous for using the word ‘America’ for the first time.

Courtesy: Christie’s

The map, printed on carved woodblocks, had ‘gores’ which are supposed to be cut out and pasted onto globes to deliver an accurate picture of the world in 360-degrees. About 1,000 copies of this map are thought to have been produced originally for a geography book, but only a handful survive – and that too because they were never cut out from the paper. Copies that were made into globes are believed to be chewed by dogs, played with by children or destroyed by fire – and permanently lost to history.

Naturally, Christie’s couldn’t believe its luck on coming across this extraordinary find. The executives at the auction house consulted their experts and visited the Bavarian State Library in Munich to compare the rare artefact with a version stored in Germany. Satisfied with what they saw, Christie’s put the map up for sale, estimating its value between $800,000 and $1.2 million.

And then came the plot twist. A group of rare map dealers and paper restorers came forward with the suggestion that the ‘rediscovered’ map was actually a forgery. These experts included a rare-map dealer working with Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Alex Clausen, Houston-based paper restorer Michal Peichl, and rare-book specialist Nick Wilding, according to The New York Times.

Courtesy: University of Minnesota

This group pointed out several major irregularities in the supposed woodblock-print map:

  • A comparison with high-resolution pictures of the known versions of the map revealed areas in the printed image that were either etched deeper than the known copies or missing altogether.
  • At one spot on the map, remnants of glue could be seen below the print – indicating that the image was printed on the page after it was torn off from a book.
  • The most telling clue came in the form of a white line on the map. This line was in exactly the same place where the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota had added extra paper to their copy of the map in order to repair a tear. How could this tear be replicated in another original map?

Following these revelations, Christie’s called off the auction days before the map was supposed to go on the block on Dec 13. And here’s the thing: While the Bell Library has the authentic map which it repaired with the paper patch, the map in the Bavarian State Library also has the same white line. After discovering the turn of events at Christie’s, the library would now be reviewing the authenticity of its own map which it obtained in 1991 from the estate of renowned collector HP Kraus. The library had paid the same figure Christie’s was hoping to fetch from this map — $1.2 million.

Well, any discovery of a Waldseemüller map would have been sensational for the cartography world. After all, the map – often referred to as America’s Birth Certificate – was the first to project a fourth major landmass alongside Africa, Europe, and Asia. But it is still heartening to know that the advancements in technology have made it increasingly difficult for forgers to fool experts and auction houses with counterfeit works.

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How many drones do you crash to make them safer? (Think hundreds)

As parcel-slinging delivery drones inch closer to reality, one cannot be blamed for wondering: what if one of them loses control and falls on my head? Researchers in Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore had the same thought. So, they decided to conduct a large-scale study and find out how badly a certain amount of weight falling from a certain altitude can hurt a person.

Their modus operandi? Crash drones on a dummy head.

A 10-person strong team took drones weighing between 1kg and 9kg and dropped them from heights ranging from 3 meters to 15 meters. A staggering 600 drones were sent to their graves before the researchers could gather enough scientific evidence they believe can help government agencies come up with regulations for safe drone operations.

Also read: Hey pilot, DJI just put a license plate on your drone!

What the researchers found particularly disturbing is that even if a person is hit on the head by a drone weighing as less as 250 grams, flying 61 meters above the sea level (a limit for which you don’t even a permit in Singapore), it could prove fatal. This means it would certainly not be advisable for commercial delivery drones to operate in open areas. A trajectory that follows covered pathways or top of buildings would prove to be safer for such operations.

Here’s a video showing NTU’s footage of the tests it conducted. Get prepared to wince:

However, a research conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) earlier this year doesn’t seem to agree with NTU’s findings. The FAA has concluded that a UAV falling on a person’s head will cause less damage than a piece of metal or wood debris of the same mass. For example, that study said that if a DJI Phantom 3 drone weighing 1280 gm falls on your head, you have a 0.03% chance or less of getting a head injury. In contrast, if a block of steel or wood of the same weight fell on you, your risk of head injury goes up to 99%.

The results NTU’s research will be presented at the AIAA Science and Technology Forum and Exposition in Florida in January 2018, the Straits Times reports. While we wait for a conclusive study to make up our minds about how safe to feel with drones flying over our heads, read about the technology NASA is developing to help drones crash-land safely during emergencies.

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