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The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an…

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made…

by Michael Blanding

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'A remarkable man, an ordinary man, a horrible criminal, a great history of Western and Northeastern cartography, a well-researched, entertaining book. ( )
  Sandydog1 | Jul 27, 2017 |
While it was written in a fast pace, it wss more a documentation than a crime story and the ending was a bit sudden ( )
  kakadoo202 | Apr 21, 2017 |
The Daily Beast
Charting a Crime
The Million-Dollar Map Thief
Nick Romeo

An X-Acto knife slips out of the pocket of a man studying an old book in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University. He doesn’t notice it has fallen, but a librarian spots it on the floor. A discreet blade, perfect for detaching old paper from a fragile binding, is the last thing that a librarian in a rare books department wants to see.

When the man starts fidgeting with something in the pocket of his blazer, the librarian’s suspicions grow. Her supervisor calls the campus police. A detective trails the man for a few minutes after he leaves the Beinecke before stopping him and asking if he wouldn’t mind returning to the library. The man agrees. Back at the library, he pulls from his pocket a stolen map worth between $50,000 and $100,000.

The man was E. Forbes Smiley III, and the map was from John Smith’s 1616 book A Description of New England. Smith coined the name New England, and the map in Smiley’s pocket was considered the first reasonably precise representation of the Massachusetts and Maine coastlines. Given how infrequently new copies of the map appeared on the market, collectors would bid handsomely for the artifact.

The story of Smiley’s theft and apprehension at Yale opens Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief: the Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps. The book cuts between the story of Smiley’s career—both criminal and otherwise—and the history of the maps he bought, sold, and stole. The result is utterly fascinating: part history of cartography, part portrait of the subculture of map dealers, and part anatomy of a criminal betrayal.

Many early maps are not appreciated for the same reason they were created. The persistent depiction by 17th-century cartographers of California as an island charms collectors precisely because of the inaccuracy its authors were striving to avoid. Precision was usually valued by the creators of maps now prized for their seemingly fanciful flaws.

Maps that were inaccurate by absolute standards could still confer a relative advantage over the competition, which helps explain why some rulers guarded their maps so jealously. The Roman emperor Augustus stored his maps in a locked and protected palace chamber; during the Renaissance, kings of Portugal made the act of copying the country’s charts punishable by death. One wonders how they would have dealt with Smiley.

Jostling for advantage in far-flung colonies, European rulers tended to reward cartographers who drew borders and named landmarks in ways that flattered colonial ambitions. A French map from 1718 that claimed most of North America as “La Louisiane” was more an attempt to create reality than to depict it. The titles of two competing 16th-century world maps nicely capture the tension between reflection and invention. One is entitled “Mirror of the World,” the other is “Theater of the World.” To see where modern preferences lie, just imagine Google Maps rebranding itself as Theater of the World Maps. Of course beauty and utility were not mutually exclusive; exquisite paintings sometimes embroidered maps that reflected the most exact contemporary knowledge of geography.

One of the things that makes Smiley’s story both painful and intriguing is his seemingly sincere love of history and old maps. He worked closely for years with many of the curators and librarians he eventually robbed. It’s hard to credit all the time he spent accumulating knowledge about the history of cartography just to the desire to ingratiate himself with a community so that he could steal from it.

But the world of antiquarian maps presented powerful temptations. Even at wealthy libraries, security in rare books and map collections is often underfunded. The New York City Public Library’s collection houses 350,000 individual maps; Yale owns roughly 250,000. Given these numbers, it’s hard to notice a single missing map. It’s often equally difficult to establish whether a missing map that exists in multiple copies matches a particular map in the possession of a private collector.

Smiley eventually admitted to stealing 97 maps from different collections at Yale, Harvard, New York City, Boston Public Library, and many others. Authorities valued the total set of stolen maps at $3 million. The total number of maps reported missing by the affected institutions, however, was a staggering 256. The disparity has left some dealers convinced that maps Smiley stole now hang on the walls of private collectors around the world.

If Smiley were the cartographer of his own past, he’d definitely belong to the school of mapmakers that depicted a fabricated rather than an actual terrain. Early cartographers presumably didn’t know that California was not an island or that sea monsters did not lurk at the edges of the known world. Smiley, by contrast, knew exactly what mistakes he was making as he committed and concealed them. But with people as with maps, those that present the fantastical as real often make the most interesting subjects.

By Michael Washburn
The Boston Globe
June 07, 2014

Extravagant crimes don’t always require extravagant tools. With only his tweed blazer, a bit of trust, and an X-Acto blade, E. Forbes Smiley transformed himself from one of the world’s most successful rare- map dealers into one of the world’s most notorious map thieves.

It was easy. After spending decades working alongside librarians at such institutions as Harvard, the Boston Public Library, and Yale, Smiley needed only to request a folder of rare maps or an atlas. His heists were subtle — a moment unobserved and the near silence of a blade through paper. Smiley removed the map, folded it to the size of a credit card, and then walked out the door with hundreds of years of history in his tweed pocket.

Simple and effective, Smiley filched more than $3 million worth of maps during his spree.

“The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps” is journalist Michael Blanding’s chronicle of Smiley’s transformation from legitimate hustler to opportunistic crook. “The Map Thief” presents as true crime, and it is, but Blanding goes far beyond Smiley’s misdeeds.

The book offers a brisk, engaging introduction to the slippery world of rare maps and map stewardship. The book also delivers glimpses into the history of American political and ideological formation — Colonial-era maps, which Smiley specialized in, were as much as anything projections of imperial optimism and aggression, and the “The Map Thief” abounds with mini-histories told through specific maps.

Smiley, a “gregarious, jolly, larger-than-life,” self-taught expert on the maps of early America, spent decades building his career and reputation. As Blanding writes, “The map community is a small one, with maybe a few dozen serious dealers in the United States and fewer than a hundred worldwide.”

By the late 1980s Smiley, a New Hampshire native and Hampshire College graduate, was a well-known presence in that handshake world. His reputation wasn’t sterling — Smiley often overextended himself, bouncing checks for acquisitions — but he was a legitimate dealer to several important collectors.

Serious money troubles beset Smiley in the 1990s when map dealing became more competitive (rare things hanging on living room walls bestow prestige, but there’s only so much art to go around).

Smiley was also financially hobbled by his pet project. He’d invested tremendous capital in a single-handed attempt to resurrect a small, central Maine town called Sebec, buying and operating a post office as well as shops and restaurants. As Smiley struggled in business, he had to maintain payroll and operating fees for a town, as well as fending off legal challenges to his plans for Sebec.

After his 2005 arrest Smiley admitted to stealing 97 maps, but the true number will likely never be known. The libraries Smiley stole from claim that nearly 250 maps are missing. After helping the FBI recover some of them, Smiley served three years in prison. Today he’s working as a landscaper and deeply in debt.

“The Map Thief” adopts the structure of a crime book, but the book doesn’t push you toward the edge of your seat. The most gripping episode in the book comes early, with Smiley’s final, failed attempt to steal from Yale’s Beinecke Library. An attentive librarian noticed a razor blade on the floor, arousing her suspicion.

Library crimes aren’t cinematic, but what “The Map Thief” lacks in suspense it more than makes up for with the details of the strange world of tweed-collar crime. As difficult as it is to catch a map thief, it’s even more difficult to imprison him.

“The difficulty in prosecuting map theft,” Blanding writes, “is that it is so hard to prove provenance. It’s not like dealing with art theft, where each item is a one-of-a-kind work. . . . No one can know with certainty how many copies of a particular map have survived over the centuries.”

If a collector suspects that a map is hot, that wouldn’t necessarily kill a deal. As Blanding observes, “It’s not just the crooked dealers — map collectors, too, are at fault for buying maps at prices too good to be true, knowing the property is stolen.”

But the most striking aspect of “The Map Thief” is less the thief — “Why did I steal?” Smiley tells Blanding, “I stole for the money.” — than the revelations about the lax security at some of our most august institutions.

Smiley was given free rein with rare materials, and most of the libraries he dealt with hadn’t, and haven’t, comprehensively cataloged their map holdings. These libraries couldn’t know what they were missing. And libraries often refuse to admit they’ve been robbed. It’s a slap in the face to their trustees and the public that such rarities are overseen so loosely — better to let something vanish than draw attention to an institution’s failure.

Blanding had limited access to Smiley: After a couple of interviews, Smiley got cold feet and severed contact. No matter, though, as Blanding’s portrait of Smiley retains vitality. Sure he was a thief and a bit of an egomaniac, but Smiley was also exceedingly generous with his friends and the people who worked in his shops. You don’t like Smiley, but he’s vivid and somewhat sympathetic. Blanding doesn’t quite reach the same amplitude when dealing with other players in the story, particularly many of the library administrators, who come across as aloof and self-preserving.

Old maps are beautiful relics — relics of ignorance, ambition, and ingenuity — and their attraction resides in their charming inaccuracy, their once-plausible, now laughable suppositions. Maps project wishful thinking. “The Map Thief” is a masterful cartography of a man who fell victim to such wishful thinking, destroying his life. As a rival dealer said about Smiley, “You’re talking about a person who defiled the institutions that defined his existence.”
  meadcl | Apr 16, 2017 |
Quite interesting. Prose was kind of bland. Was glad author focussed on the maps and the art of dealing and stealing rather than Smiley. ( )
  catnips13 | Mar 29, 2016 |
The Map Thief by Michael Blanding is a very highly recommended nonfiction account of a map dealer who stole hundreds of antique maps from collections, as well as a history lesson about some of the maps he stole.

You don't have to love old maps to fully appreciate The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by Michael Blanding, but it helps if you at least appreciate them and enjoy reading about the history behind the creation of some of the maps.

E. Forbes Smiley III was an antiquarian map dealer who was also a thief. He stole an unknown quantity of maps, perhaps over 200, from libraries and collections, and then sold these public treasures in order to finance his lifestyle. Since the number of actual rare maps Smiley stole is unknown (although a list of known stolen maps from around the world is included), it is difficult to put a total price on what he stole but it was certainly in the millions.

Blanding interviewed Smiley at the beginning of the book, but later Smiley tried to distance himself from the publishing of this book. At that point Blanding had already been talking to "a wider circle of people, investigating a paper trail of court documents, and spending hours sifting through library archives and volumes of old maps." With or without Smiley's further cooperation, Blandings began to piece together "an answer to my biggest question: Why did a respected map dealer at the height of his profession betray those closest to him—and deface the artifacts he spent his life preserving? The more I researched his story, however, the more questions I uncovered—to the point where I began to suspect that his reasons for cutting off our correspondence had less to do with the advice of his advisor or the impact on his family, and more to do with his own fears of exposing secrets he has never revealed."

Since Blanding also has a love of old and rare maps he is a good author to tell this story which involves the history of the maps themselves and the intrigue of Smiley's prolonged theft of so many maps over several years. Blanding writes, "I read about him in The New Yorker in October 2005 with fascination—first, for the maps themselves, these historical documents that were at once beautiful and flawed, and second, for this strange character at the center of the crime, so mysterious in his decision to despoil the world he loved."

After the news of Smiley's arrest for stealing maps broke and the word was out to curators, "One by one, they began to call with panicked reports of maps missing from books in their collections as well. As they did, more questions began to reverberate through the insular world of map libraries, collectors, and dealers: Why had a respected and successful antiquarian dealer turned against those who trusted him and stolen the things he loved most? And how long had he been getting away with it?"

This fascinating book not only covers the deeply flawed and contradictory personality of Smiley and his lifestyle, it also does an excellent job explaining the history, provenance, and importance of various maps and precisely why they are so valuable. He talks to other map dealers, clients, and curators. The book includes an 8 page color insert and black and white photos throughout, chapter notes, and an index. As mentioned, there is a list of all the maps that are known to be missing from libraries and public collections worldwide.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Gotham Books for review purposes.

( )
  SheTreadsSoftly | Mar 21, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 51 (next | show all)
Old maps are beautiful relics — relics of ignorance, ambition, and ingenuity...Maps project wishful thinking. “The Map Thief” is a masterful cartography of a man who fell victim to such wishful thinking, destroying his life. As a rival dealer said about Smiley, “You’re talking about a person who defiled the institutions that defined his existence.”
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{A}s Geography without History seemeth a carkasse without motion; so History without Geography, wandreth as a Vagrant, without a certaine habitation.  
- Captain John Smith, 1624
To Zachary and Cleo May you always find your way. >
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(Introduction) The first time I heard Forbes Smiley's voice was at six o'clock on a summer Friday as I was drinking a martini at a Boston bar.
June 8, 2005
E. Forbes Smiley III couldn't stop coughing.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

I won this book though Library Thing and I am so pleased.  Never in my wildest imaging would I believe a personable rare book dealer would stoop to so many dishonest dealings.  Granted the temptation is always there.  However to lie, steal, fabricate so many numerous damaging of historic and rare books with maps.  Purposely defacing historic map makers work through greed and the pompous posturing to be seen as a great man.

Once I started this book I absolutely couldn't bear to lay it down.

Antiquarian Map Dealer E. Forbes Smiley the 3rd stepped out of his love of the trade to be swallowed into his ever increasing need to wheel and deal stolen maps.  

Con men have always been around but Smiley the 3rd advances into the realm of macbe behavior.

Totally loved the true stories of historic map makers, and the people who stood strong against thieves.

If you read only one a year this is the one!

True Crime and I'm just sorry that his time served didn't really fit his crime. It should have been harsher...
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This is the story of an infamous crime, a revered map dealer with an unsavory secret, and the ruthless subculture that consumed him. Maps have long exerted a special fascination on viewers, both as beautiful works of art and as practical tools to navigate the world. But to those who collect them, the map trade can be a cutthroat business, inhabited by quirky and sometimes disreputable characters in search of a finite number of extremely rare objects. Once considered a respectable antiquarian map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley spent years doubling as a map thief, until he was finally arrested slipping maps out of books in the Yale University library. This book delves into the untold history of this fascinating high-stakes criminal and the inside story of the industry that consumed him. The author, a reporter and magazine writer, has interviewed all the key players in this stranger-than-fiction story, and shares the fascinating histories of maps that charted the New World, and how they went from being practical instruments to quirky heirlooms to highly coveted objects. Though pieces of the map theft story have been written before, the author is the first reporter to explore the story in full, and had the rare privilege of having access to Smiley himself after he had gone silent in the wake of his crimes. Moreover, although Smiley swears he has admitted to all of the maps he stole, libraries claim he stole hundreds more, and offer intriguing clues to prove it. Now, through a series of exclusive interviews with Smiley and other key individuals, the author teases out an astonishing tale of destruction and redemption. The story interweaves Smiley's escapades with the stories of the explorers and mapmakers he knew better than anyone. Tracking a series of brazen thefts, and an obsessive subculture, the author has pieced together an unforgettable story of high-stakes crime. -- Provided by publisher.… (more)

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