The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps

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by Michael Blanding
     
 

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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…  See more details below

Overview

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. The Map Thief delves into the untold history of this fascinating high-stakes criminal and the inside story of the industry that consumed him.
 
Acclaimed reporter Michael Blanding 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, Blanding is the first reporter to explore the story in full—and had the rare privilege of having access to Smiley himself after he’d 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, Blanding teases out an astonishing tale of destruction and redemption.
 
The Map Thief interweaves Smiley’s escapades with the stories of the explorers and mapmakers he knew better than anyone. Tracking a series of thefts as brazen as the art heists in Provenance and a subculture as obsessive as the oenophiles in The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Blanding has pieced together an unforgettable story of high-stakes crime.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
06/15/2014
The opening of journalist Blanding's (The Nation, New Republic, Boston Globe Magazine) cartographic true crime volume sees the bordering-on-delusional, overconfident E. Forbes Smiley III (b. 1956) breezily describing his long-term heist of the map world. Over several years while he was already a well-known rare-map dealer, Smiley stole treasures from some of the most prestigious institutions in the United States and England and sold them to cover his mounting debts (and sometimes, the reader will feel, just because he could). The beginning of the book also relates what became an inevitable next step as Smiley grew increasingly brash: his capture near Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library with stolen maps. While the reader thus knows most of the outcome from the outset, Blanding's well-researched tale of his subject's emergence and slow climb to the top of this genteel yet cutthroat corner of the art world remains fascinating—especially for librarians, who will thrill to the behind-the-scenes depictions of libraries from the eastern seaboard to London, and relish how one of their number finally forced this blowhard to his comeuppance. Along the way, too, readers will gain a quick education on the curation of rare maps and the quirkiness and intrigue involved in their creation (they're not as impartial as their makers may claim). VERDICT This modern-day crime tale is almost novelistic in its detailed flashbacks to the past and suspenseful ending, which pits Smiley's newfound honesty against the libraries that seek to prove that he stole even more than he's humble-bragging he did.—Henrietta Verma, Library Journal
Publishers Weekly
04/14/2014
Considered by many to be a reputable antique map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley III was also a thief who stole hundreds of valuable maps (some estimates put his haul at over 200) from libraries and other institutions and then sold them. Here, reporter Blanding (The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink) examines and contextualizes the curious case. What began as the occasional pilferage in order to keep his business afloat ballooned as Smiley’s debt increased exponentially, due in no small part to a grand lifestyle—the most glaring example of which was Smiley’s renovation of a rustic farmhouse, including a $105,000 kitchen from Italy. He also spent enormous sums in an effort to revive the struggling town by opening a restaurant and other businesses. In this well-researched account, Blanding profiles Smiley as well as dealers, clients, librarians, and mapmakers, including Gerard Mercator and Sir Robert Dudley (creator of the first atlas of the world’s coastlines). While Smiley’s actions are shocking, perhaps the most outrageous fact in the book is the revelation of his prison sentence: a mere three and a half years. This is a highly readable profile of a narcissist who got in over his head and lost it all. Agent: Elisabeth Weed, Weed Literary. (June)
From the Publisher
THE MAP THIEF is a gripping, suspenseful tale, told by a veteran investigative reporter. And yes, it comes with maps.” – Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Blanding tucks great little historical trivia … into his cohesive narrative… an enjoyable exploration of an obscure aspect of history.” – Miami Herald

“Brisk, engaging…Maps project wishful thinking. THE MAP THIEF is a masterful cartography of a man who fell victim to such wishful thinking, destroying his life.”
 – The Boston Globe

“Brain kale...Bizarre, fascinating, and 100 percent true.” – Mental Floss

“Truth is much stranger than fiction…In the normally dry world of cartography, Smiley’s story makes for a riveting read.” – Town & Country

“An enthralling look at a famous case.” – Boston Common

“The best glimpse yet of the social-climbing sneak thief who stole millions of dollars in rare maps from Yale University and other institutions a decade ago.” –New Haven Register

“Blanding delves deep into both Smiley’s world and the history of mapmaking…a fascinating story of ambitions high and low.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Well-researched…A highly readable profile of a narcissist who got in over his head and lost it all.” – Publishers Weekly

“A gripping mix of true crime, cartographic lore and bookish obsession, THE MAP THIEF is a book that map and book lovers will devour, even as they cringe at the crimes described.”
Shelf Awareness

“In this cartographic caper, Michael Blanding slips into the antique map trade and takes a magnifying glass to the mind and motivations of a curious character named E. Forbes Smiley III, a New England polymath with a special talent for taking razors to rare books. The setting and the character belong in a novel, and this engrossing book reads like fiction.” – Nina Burleigh, author of the New York Times bestseller The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trials of Amanda Knox
 
"The Map Thief isn't just a perceptive, meticulously researched portrait of an exceedingly unlikely felon.  It's also a tribute to the beautiful old maps that inspired his cartographic crimes—and shaped our modern world." – Ken Jennings, author of Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
 
“Old maps tug powerfully at the imagination, and not always in healthy ways. Nothing makes that clearer than the strange, unsettling case of Forbes Smiley, whose story Michael Blanding has pieced together in captivating detail. This is an unforgettable and cautionary tale, told by an expert investigative reporter who writes with the narrative flair of a novelist. A great read!”
Toby Lester, author of The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America
 
“Disgraced map dealer Forbes Smiley once said that he hoped that the stories about his thefts ‘would go away.’ That might be so. But thankfully Michael Blanding decided otherwise, and he tells a powerful story about the nature of crime, greed and art. Smart, suspenseful, and engaging, this book is a fascinating read.” – Ulrich Boser, bestselling author of The Gardner Heist
 
“This is a terrific book. The portrait of Forbes Smiley here is one we rarely get of cultural heritage thieves – complete and even-handed, without being either credulous or vindictive. The Map Thief, aside from being wonderfully readable, is a valuable addition to this area of study.”
 – Travis McDade, author of The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman
 
“Michael Blanding not only tells the spell-binding tale of a clever and obsessed thief, but he also adds to the field of research into people who commit crimes involving rare and precious items.  All the while, Blanding examines the crimes with the acumen of a seasoned investigator and the skill of a talented writer.” – Anthony M. Amore, co-author of Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-20
The strange, mysterious world of rare maps—and the even stranger mystery of the man who stole them for years without getting caught.Journalist Blanding (The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink, 2010) presents a detailed account of the case of E. Forbes Smiley III, the high-living Gatsby-esque map dealer who scored millions fencing rare maps. Although deeply knowledgeable and well-respected in his field, Smiley also wanted the good life, and he racked up a mountain of debt trying to bankroll fancy homes and ill-advised property schemes. A charmer who won the trust of librarians and was deeply aware of their haphazard filing systems, Smiley easily developed a second career in thievery. He got away with it for at least four years, until the fateful day in 2005 when a Yale security guard noticed he dropped a razor blade on the floor of the rare book and manuscript library. Blanding delves deep into both Smiley's world and the history of mapmaking, focusing in particular on what makes a map valuable. Some are simply meticulous works of art; others helped forge the destinies of countries or document lands that no longer exist (such as the short-lived Roanoke Colony). There are also uniquely primitive maps that are wildly off the mark about undiscovered lands, harkening back to an age when North America was still known as "Terra Incognita." As an attorney involved in Smiley's case put it, these maps "drew the lines between where knowledge ended and imagination began. They represented man's timeless drive to explore the unknown and bring definition to the void." In the modern world, they have also become an affordable means of conspicuous consumption for people who can't quite swing a Picasso or Monet.A fascinating story of ambitions high and low, the ancient yearning to chart a new world and the eternal lure of a quick buck.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780698156982
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
05/29/2014
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
123,701
File size:
21 MB
Note:
This product may take a few minutes to download.
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt

June 8, 2005: E. FORBES SMILEY III couldn’t stop coughing. No matter how much he tried to suppress it, the tickle in the back of his throat kept breaking out into a hacking cough, drawing glances from the patrons sitting around him. The glass fishbowl of a reading room at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University was quiet except for the low hum of the air- conditioning and the clicking of fingers on keyboards, making Smiley painfully aware of the noise he was making. At one point, he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to muffle the sound. As he did, an X-Acto knife blade wrapped inside fell softly onto the carpeted floor. He folded the cloth and put it back in his pocket, oblivious to what had just happened.

Smiley was in the Beinecke this morning to study some rare atlases in preparation for the London Map Fair, an annual gathering of hundreds of map collectors who came to the British capital to buy, sell, and trade antiquarian maps. As one of the top dealers in the field, Smiley

hoped to use the event to climb out of the financial hole into which he’d recently sunk. Over the years, he’d become expert at recognizing different versions of the same map from subtle typographical variations, an ability that could translate into thousands of dollars when deployed at the right moment. By refamiliarizing himself with some select maps, he hoped to be ready for any opportunity in London.

So far, the trip hadn’t gone well. The previous night, he’d woken up miserable in a cheap hotel. It wasn’t the kind of place he’d usually stay. He favored luxury hotels, where he could see the look of surprise and interest flit across the faces of people when he let it be known he was a map dealer. He looked the part, too, with graying hair swept back over his ears and a long, oval face ending in a narrow, patrician chin. A pair of silver wire-framed glasses perched on his nose, and he invariably wore tweed or navy blue blazers. That, along with his Yankee-sounding

name, usually caused people to assume he was from “old money,” an impression Smiley did nothing to correct.

When people thought of Forbes Smiley— as he was universally known by friends, dealers, librarians, and clients— a few words inevitably sprang to mind: gregarious; jolly; larger-fithan-life. He spoke with the resonance of an Italian tenor mangled by a nasally Waspish affectation.

His voice, like Daisy Buchanan’s, was “full of money.” When he made phone calls, he made sure to announce that he was calling “from the Vineyard.” His upper-crust affectations, however, were tempered by a charming self-deprecation.

He’d ingratiated himself with many a librarian by inquiring after her spouse or children, and reciprocated with entertaining stories of travels around the world or the progress of the new home he was building on the Vineyard.

Most of all, people thought of his laugh. For years, friends had reveled in Smiley’s laugh, which rolled up out of his belly and wracked his body in a cackle that only increased in volume the longer it went on. It was the kind of laugh that in college had earned him free tickets from theater producers, who sat him in the front row to egg on the audience. And it generally caused

people to excuse the pretension that crept into his voice when he was expounding on any of his obsessions— architecture, New England history, the blues, and, of course, maps. Whether they liked him or not, his colleagues and rivals in the map business had all been seduced by his knowledge, which in certain areas exceeded that of anyone else in the world.

Reprinted by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Michael Blanding, 2014.

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What People are saying about this

From the Publisher
THE MAP THIEF is a gripping, suspenseful tale, told by a veteran investigative reporter. And yes, it comes with maps.” – Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“Blanding tucks great little historical trivia … into his cohesive narrative… an enjoyable exploration of an obscure aspect of history.” – Miami Herald

“Brisk, engaging…Maps project wishful thinking. THE MAP THIEF is a masterful cartography of a man who fell victim to such wishful thinking, destroying his life.”
 – The Boston Globe

“Brain kale...Bizarre, fascinating, and 100 percent true.” – Mental Floss

“Truth is much stranger than fiction…In the normally dry world of cartography, Smiley’s story makes for a riveting read.” – Town & Country

“An enthralling look at a famous case.” – Boston Common

“The best glimpse yet of the social-climbing sneak thief who stole millions of dollars in rare maps from Yale University and other institutions a decade ago.” –New Haven Register

“Blanding delves deep into both Smiley’s world and the history of mapmaking…a fascinating story of ambitions high and low.” – Kirkus Reviews

“Well-researched…A highly readable profile of a narcissist who got in over his head and lost it all.” – Publishers Weekly

“A gripping mix of true crime, cartographic lore and bookish obsession, THE MAP THIEF is a book that map and book lovers will devour, even as they cringe at the crimes described.”
Shelf Awareness

“In this cartographic caper, Michael Blanding slips into the antique map trade and takes a magnifying glass to the mind and motivations of a curious character named E. Forbes Smiley III, a New England polymath with a special talent for taking razors to rare books. The setting and the character belong in a novel, and this engrossing book reads like fiction.” – Nina Burleigh, author of the New York Times bestseller The Fatal Gift of Beauty: The Italian Trials of Amanda Knox
 
"The Map Thief isn't just a perceptive, meticulously researched portrait of an exceedingly unlikely felon.  It's also a tribute to the beautiful old maps that inspired his cartographic crimes—and shaped our modern world." – Ken Jennings, author of Maphead: Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks
 
“Old maps tug powerfully at the imagination, and not always in healthy ways. Nothing makes that clearer than the strange, unsettling case of Forbes Smiley, whose story Michael Blanding has pieced together in captivating detail. This is an unforgettable and cautionary tale, told by an expert investigative reporter who writes with the narrative flair of a novelist. A great read!”
Toby Lester, author of The Fourth Part of the World: An Astonishing Epic of Global Discovery, Imperial Ambition, and the Birth of America
 
“Disgraced map dealer Forbes Smiley once said that he hoped that the stories about his thefts ‘would go away.’ That might be so. But thankfully Michael Blanding decided otherwise, and he tells a powerful story about the nature of crime, greed and art. Smart, suspenseful, and engaging, this book is a fascinating read.” – Ulrich Boser, bestselling author of The Gardner Heist
 
“This is a terrific book. The portrait of Forbes Smiley here is one we rarely get of cultural heritage thieves – complete and even-handed, without being either credulous or vindictive. The Map Thief, aside from being wonderfully readable, is a valuable addition to this area of study.”
 – Travis McDade, author of The Book Thief: The True Crimes of Daniel Spiegelman
 
“Michael Blanding not only tells the spell-binding tale of a clever and obsessed thief, but he also adds to the field of research into people who commit crimes involving rare and precious items.  All the while, Blanding examines the crimes with the acumen of a seasoned investigator and the skill of a talented writer.” – Anthony M. Amore, co-author of Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Stories of Notorious Art Heists

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Meet the Author

Michael Blanding is an author and journalist with more than fifteen years of experience writing long-form narrative and investigative journalism and has written for The Nation, The New Republic, Consumers Digest, and The Boston Globe Magazine. He lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
ruthiesews More than 1 year ago
So fascinating how people can go from loving something to being obsessed by it and then justifying criminal behavior. Very interesting to learn more about the history of map making as well.
lsmeadows More than 1 year ago
In his introduction to the book The Map Thief author Michael Blanding writes, "Maps have long exerted a special fascination on viewers-both as beautiful works of art and as practical tools to navigate the world."  What he forgets to mention is that they can also be snapshots in history.  For me, they are all of the above, so a book centered around historical maps seemed a natural.  Add to that my fascination with true crime accounts, and it is no wonder that I jumped at the chance to read and review this book.   The Map Thief  is Blandings account of  the E. Forbes Smiley case, Smiley was a respected dealer in antiquarian maps who ended up in over his head and began stealing rare and famous maps from Universities and selling them on the market as new finds until he was caught red-handed cutting a map from a book in the Yale University antique map room.  I found the idea that a trusted, well respected member of the exclusive trade in antiquarian maps could take so much advantage of the other players in the industry fascinating.  After all, for years E. Forbes Smiley was able to pull the wool over the eyes of top-notch dealers in antique maps and savvy collectors, not to mention the major Universities and Museums that he was able to steal from.  I really enjoyed reading about Smiley and his crimes.   For me, though, the best part of the book was the amount of time that Blanding spent explaining the maps that were stolen and their significance.  As you might expect from an investigative journalist of his caliber, the discussion of each map was well researched and well written.  His ability to highlight the importance of these maps as both historical documents and works of art really drew me in.  I learned so much about maps, their uses, the history of map making, and the historical figures behind the maps.  I would have loved for this part of the book to never end.  Blanding did such a great job with this part of the book that I found myself researching antique maps and the history of map making on my own.   The only place were the book fell short for me was at the end.  Throughout the book, there was a lot of discussion of the fact that hundreds more maps were missing that Smiley ever admitted to stealing.  I felt it was presented in such a way that a revelation would be forthcoming, but perhaps it was just my reader's wish that there would be a big reveal.  At any rate, not only was there no real new information about these missing maps, I felt that Blanding really glassed over this portion of the story. It was almost like he just threw the information into the book at the end and as a result, I thought it detracted from the rest of the book, which was really great.  In  addition, I found the information that was presented confusing.  For me, it would have been better if Blanding had mentioned that many more maps were missing, and the theories by all parties about what might have happened to them, in a short concluding chapter.   All in all, though, this book was really worth the read.  The information regarding maps, map making, and map collecting was enough to keep me interested to the very end.  Throw in E. Forbes Smiley, his personality, and what he was able to accomplish, and you have a very engaging read.  I would highly recommend it to any one with a love of history and a love of true crime stories.  Bravo Mr. Blanding! A heartfelt thanks to both Gotham Publishing and Edelweiss for making this title available to me in exchange for my review.