The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps, by Michael Blanding, 2014, Gotham Books, hardcover, 300 pages, $27.50.
Through the ages, maps have been the source of enormous power. To those who possessed them, they conveyed precious information to chart new territory, dominate trade routes, even expand empires.
In recent times, those same maps — from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, for example — no longer had navigational value, but were a different kind of treasure nonetheless — rare, expensive artifacts coveted by collectors, libraries, museums. And thieves.
Into this obscure corner of the antiquarian business strode E. Forbes Smiley 3rd, the Chilmark man whose personality, knowledge and competitive drive made him a player in the rare maps trade, starting in the mid 1980s.
By 2005, he had become a visitor to rare book or map collections at Harvard, Yale, Boston Public Library, New York Public Library and elsewhere, a welcome sight to some staff who appreciated his extensive knowledge and enjoyed stories about his jet-setting lifestyle.
One Yale librarian, writes journalist Michael Blanding, “even found herself wishing her daughter could meet a nice man like that.”
Then on a June day that year, Mr. Smiley dropped an X-Acto knife blade — sometimes used by thieves to slice maps from books — onto the carpeted floor of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. He was soon taken into custody as a suspected thief, and at that moment his high-flying life careened into a tailspin.
Mr. Smiley is at the center of Mr. Blanding’s new book, The Map Thief, which offers a fascinating look into the world of antiquarian maps, the people who created them, and, centuries later, those who traded them, including Mr. Smiley himself, who has admitted to stealing nearly 100 such maps.
Mr. Blanding, a Boston-area journalist, came to this story as a self-described map geek and ended up, in effect, charting the personality of a man whose story “bled off into the margins between the known and the unknowable.”
The irony of Mr. Smiley’s story, says the author, is that a man whose obsession for these instruments of navigation could have lost his own way so badly. Pressed to maintain a certain lifestyle and pay mounting debts, according to the book, Mr. Smiley turned to stealing rare maps from libraries in Boston, Cambridge, New York, Chicago, New Haven and London.
Mr. Blanding’s book juxtaposes a history of maps and their makers with the modern market for these pieces of art and history. Mr. Smiley’s rise, fall and retreat to the Island to rebuild his life are at the heart of the 222-page book, which adds a detailed list of characters, two appendices listing the maps stolen and missing, plus handsome reproductions of maps interspersed throughout.
The early life of this man with the patrician name and bearing was actually quite ordinary. Mr. Smiley was raised in a middle class family in New Hampshire and, after college, went to work at the upscale (and now defunct) department store B. Altman and Co. in New York, landing in the store’s rare books department.
There he built upon his curiosity about maps, spending a great deal of time at the nearby New York Public Library and becoming well known to Altman’s customers. Eventually he channeled his encyclopedic knowledge and enthusiasm into his own business.
Over the next 20 years, he built a reputation as knowledgeable, charismatic and an aggressive trader. To friends, clients and librarians, Forbes Smiley, as he was known, was an engaging, generous, larger-than-life personality with a memorable belly laugh. To some rivals in what could be a cutthroat business, he was not so well-loved, writes Mr. Blanding, known to some as “slow pay or no pay” for some acquisitions.
Nonetheless, with his success came a home in Sebec, central Maine, in the late 1980s and one on the Vineyard in late 1997. But the expenses piled up. In Maine, he renovated his farmhouse, restored an abandoned post office, opened a general store and then a restaurant, invigorating the local economy before alienating some townspeople, writes Mr. Blanding. On the Vineyard, he eventually tore down his house and began work on a new one.
“He always stretched himself a little too far and wanted to project this image of himself that he couldn’t quite live up to, whether that was acquiring maps he couldn’t quite afford or living this kind of jet-setting lifestyle and projecting this image of this kind of upper crust, erudite map dealer,” Mr. Blanding said in a phone interview.
The financial pressures became so intense that he turned to theft. Mr. Blanding says Mr. Smiley told him his first was from the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale. He folded the map into a rectangle the size of a credit card, put it into his jacket pocket and later sold it for $75,000, Mr. Blanding writes. “Eventually for Smiley the stealing just became habitual.”
“I never took pleasure in stealing,” Mr. Smiley told Mr. Blanding in an interview. “I stole because I was trying to relieve myself from this feeling of desperation, and that’s a word I never understood until it happened to me.”
Favored were maps of North America, and they included those by Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes, the French explorer Samuel Champlain and even John Smith, one of the founders of the Virginia colony. Mr. Smiley admitted to pilfering a Henry Briggs map charting Henry Hudson’s discoveries. (Briggs’s maps also helped perpetuate the myth that California was a wedge-shaped island off the coast of North America.)
Some collections seemed easy marks, accessible in libraries where they could be handled and were poorly protected. As Mr. Blanding describes, the tools of a thief can be relatively simple: a razor blade to slice maps from books or wet string stored in one’s cheek, then used to soften the centuries-old glue binding the pages. If the thief is lucky, the maps are loose.
On that day in 2005, after Mr. Smiley inadvertently dropped the X-Acto blade, a series of events was triggered, including his cooperation with the FBI, guilty pleas in federal and state courts, and a 42-month prison sentence, later reduced to 36 months because of good behavior. He also was ordered to pay $2.3 million in restitution to those who bought the maps, mostly other dealers.
The Map Thief leaves some lingering mysteries, primarily: Are there other maps that Mr. Smiley hasn’t accounted for and, if so, where are they?
Since he furnished authorities a list of stolen maps, Mr. Smiley has repeatedly insisted that he had taken no others. “There is not one single map,” Mr. Smiley told the author. “I do not know of one.”
He had no reason to hold back on prosecutors, who expressed satisfaction with his cooperation and have closed the case, said Mr. Blanding. “I don’t think there is some secret stash in Europe that he’s ready to sell in 20 years,” he added.
But the libraries insisted that his sentence was too lenient and asserted that he had not come entirely clean. “In all, libraries were able to prove that Smiley had stolen at least 11 maps he hadn’t admitted to taking,” the author writes. “Prosecutors didn’t see any evidence that he was deliberately withholding information — after all, he had admitted taking almost a hundred maps, including some the libraries didn’t know were missing.”
Mr. Smiley declined to be interviewed by the Gazette, saying in an email that he ultimately declined to cooperate with Mr. Blanding’s book project, and has “followed requests of the prosecutor, the institutions and others involved to stay quiet, and get about putting my life back together. Apparently, my reticence is in their best interest as well. Really — no bad feelings, but that’s where we are today.”
To his credit, Mr. Smiley took stock of his life after his arrest and embraced a healthier, low-key, family-oriented existence on the Vineyard, said Mr. Blanding. “I think that there is something impressive and commendable in that,” he said. “That really struck me when I spoke to him.”
In the end, Mr. Smiley’s story appears to be one of a complicated, talented and flawed man who had his successes, tried to do some good, but succumbed to darker impulses.
”Maybe not to the extreme that he did, but we can all see ourselves losing our way and doing things we are not proud of and justifying it to ourselves,” said Mr. Blanding. “And I think there is something very human and relatable at the core of that story.”
Mr. Blanding will discuss The Map Thief on Aug. 14 at 6:30 p.m. at the Oak Bluffs Public Library. For a full calendar of events, visit eventsmv.com.