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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.68(d)|
|Age Range:||18 Years|
About 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.
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-?than-?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.
Excerpted from "The Map Thief"
Copyright © 2015 Michael Blanding.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Characters xi
Selected Mapmakers, 1470-1860 xvii
Chapter 1 The Explorer and the Thief 9
Chapter 2 Small Hope 27
Chapter 3 A New World 41
Chapter 4 Who Knows the Most Wins 59
Chapter 6 Catalog Number One 75
Chapter 6 Playing Hardball 91
Chapter 7 Upward Departure 107
Chapter 8 The Battle of Sebec 119
Chapter 9 Missing Maps, Missing Cards 135
Chapter 10 Caught! 153
Chapter 11 The Plea 167
Chapter 12 Map Quest 185
Chapter 13 Terra Incognita 201
Appendix A Maps Smiley Admitted Stealing 223
Appendix B Additional Maps Libraries Reported Missing 233
What People are Saying About This
“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 crimesand 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
Q&A with Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief
How many maps did Forbes Smiley steal?
Smiley admitted to stealing 97 maps from six libraries—Harvard, Yale, New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, the British Library, and the Newberry Library in Chicago—worth over $3 million in all. However, the libraries accuse him of taking many more. In all, they are missing around 250 maps, and have evidence that he stole at least a dozen of them. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle—but we may never know for sure exactly how many he stole.
How did he steal them?
In many cases, the maps were contained in rare books, and Smiley was able to go into a library and just rip them out or cut them out with a razor blade when no one was looking. In other cases, he would request a folder full of maps and just take one. Then, he folded them and put them in the pocket of his blazer and just walked right out. Library catalogs often don’t specify which exact maps should appear in which books or folders. So Smiley could rip out a map worth $100,000, and walk out without anyone knowing it was missing. Many of the map library curators knew him as a respected rare-map dealer and trusted him almost like a colleague; he abused that trust to walk out with rare maps right under their noses.
How could he ever sell these rare maps? Wouldn’t someone know they were stolen?
Maps aren’t like works of art, which exist in only one copy and are strictly catalogued by museums. A rare map might exist in a dozen or more copies, both in libraries and private hands, with no way of knowing if another copy isn’t hidden in someone’s attic somewhere. Smiley sold mostly to other dealers he’d worked with for years, and they apparently believed them when he told them that he was quietly selling off copies of old maps from the collection of old clients. When these dealers then sold them to collectors, they could openly display them with no idea that stolen property was hanging in their offices and living rooms.
Wow! How did old maps get to be worth so much?
As art began getting pricier in the 1980s, many wealthy collectors turned to maps as a less expensive way to decorate their homes and display their wealth and knowledge. A doctor or stock broker might not be able to afford millions of dollars for a Monet or a Picasso, but they could afford a few tens of thousands for an original map print that might be equally beautiful, and come with an interesting history going back hundreds of years to boot. Map prices really began skyrocketing in the 1990s, when they became trendy for home decorating.
What did he do with all that money?
Like most thieves, he spent some of the money on luxuries—nice clothes, fancy dinners, travel… But most of it, strangely, went to a small town in Maine that Smiley essentially tried to buy and remake into his vision of a perfect New England village. He bought the post office, a general store, and a restaurant, and spent a lot of money fixing up the town and employing its residents. Not everyone in the town liked his ideas, however, and he ended up getting into a messy feud with the neighbors across the street who owned a marina. Eventually the dispute grew into a lawsuit that divided the whole town.
What caused Smiley to steal?
Smiley was never a good businessman, and from the beginning of his career as a map dealer, he was always overextended and owing money to people. He also claims that his own gallery was robbed back in the late 1980s, putting more pressure on his business. As map prices rose in the 1990s, he began competing fiercely with other dealers, who drove up prices on him at auction and made him pay more for his maps. The final straw, however, was the flap over the town up in Maine; he began hemorrhaging money on legal bills at the same time he was trying to keep his businesses there afloat. One day in a library he realized that he could fold a map into the size of a credit card and slip in his jacket pocket, then sell it the next day for $30,000 to make his payroll up in Maine. That started him down a slippery slope that led to more and more thefts.
How was he caught?
Smiley was caught in June 2005 when an attentive librarian at Yale University noticed an X-acto knife blade he had dropped on the floor. When library staff looked him up, they saw he was a rare-map dealer and began to get suspicious. A Yale police officer followed him out of the library, and when they searched him, they found a map of New England by John Smith in his pocket that they were able to match to one of the books he’d been using. Once he was arrested, the FBI sent out notices to other libraries, which began to discover that they too were missing maps from books Smiley had used. The case unraveled from there.
Where is he now? Is he in prison?
No, he served only three years in prison, despite pleading guilty to $2.3 million in thefts. In part that was because of the assistance he provided to the FBI in recovering the 97 maps, only 18 of which they had enough evidence to charge, earning leniency from the judge. Smiley got out of prison in early 2010, returning to his home on Martha’s Vineyard, which he was able to keep despite the money he still owes to dealers and collectors. Crime doesn’t totally pay, however. Last I spoke with him, he was working as a landscaper making $12 an hour, and still struggling to repay the millions he owes.
Could this kind of theft happen again?
It could and it has. Since Smiley’s sentencing, there hasn’t been a major case of map theft in the United States, though there have been several in Europe to the tune of millions of dollars. Many of the libraries have taken precautions since the Smiley case, increasing security and surveillance, and taking digital photos to catalog their collections. Map dealers, too, have become warier of buying stolen material. However, there is still a great deal of secrecy that is endemic to the map trade. Libraries are often reluctant to publicize when they are missing material, and dealers are often reluctant to reveal what maps they are buying, or ask too many questions about where they came from. All of that makes it easier to get away with selling stolen material. Unless something changes, as one former map librarian told me, it’s not a matter of if there will be another case of rare map theft, but when.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.