Book Review: ‘The Map Thief’ by Michael Blanding
After stealing some 100 rare maps over three years, E. Forbes Smiley III was caught when he left an X-Acto knife behind at Yale.
By MAXWELL CARTER
July 13, 2014 6:41 p.m. ET
‘This is Forbes Smiley, from the Vineyard.” Would that all criminals introduced themselves with such genteel address. But then, E. Forbes Smiley III, with his classical education, third-generation suffix and “rich, nasally” accent, is hardly an ordinary felon. In “The Map Thief,” Michael Blanding intersperses the tale of Smiley’s theft of nearly 100 maps between 2002 and 2005 with the histories of mapmaking and of the pioneering works that Smiley coolly pilfered.
Smiley’s childhood in Bedford, N.H., was, by his own reckoning, “idyllic.” He thrived in the close-knit town and at the “experimental” high school that his parents had helped to found. In 1974, he left for Hampshire College, where he drove an old Checker cab and made dollhouse furniture for extra cash. Not surprisingly, Smiley’s unusual interests led him to an unconventional career. Soon after graduating, he moved to New York and apprenticed in the rare-book and map division at B. Altman, the stately Fifth Avenue department store. In 1984, he struck out on his own, at age 28.
The heady mid-1980s market was well-suited to someone of Smiley’s youth and inexperience. Map collecting had, by then, become widespread thanks to colorful adherents such as British dealer-cum-pub fixture R.V. Tooley, whom Smiley met around this time. With the ascendancy of Impressionist and modern art, maps became an attractive proposition for emerging collectors and savvy decorators.
Over the next 20 years, Smiley established strong relationships with avid buyers, single-handedly assembling prominent private collections. He married, sired E. Forbes Smiley IV, and settled in Martha’s Vineyard and Sebec, Maine. From the beginning, however, his obligations outpaced his income. Friends referred to his shadowy accounting of debts and assets as “Forbes dollars.” Smiley acquired maps before he could pay for them, hosted weekend parties he could ill afford and squabbled, at great cost, with neighbors in Sebec.
The Map Thief
By Michael Blanding
(Gotham, 300 pages, $27.50)
In 1989, Smiley claimed that his 79th Street apartment had been burgled and his entire inventory wiped out. Colleagues and rivals questioned whether the break-in happened at all. Whatever the case, his dubious practices and financial difficulties persisted. If Smiley can be believed, he didn’t actually break the law until 2002, when he made off with John Seller’s 1675 “Mapp of New England” from Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. Thereafter he continued preying on poorly guarded collections, notably at the New York and Boston public libraries, where he knew the staff and could circumvent the minimal security.
His methods were, by turns, primitive and elaborate. Smiley wore an unseasonably heavy tweed blazer for concealment, an effective, albeit sweaty, measure. He was often more sophisticated. John Collet’s prerevolutionary map of North Carolina was large and unfolded, making both extraction and resale problematic. Undaunted, Smiley stole the New York Public Library’s copy, subsequently ironing out his own hasty creases before remounting it for presentation. When the work resurfaced at the Miami map fair, the unsuspecting NYPL curator discussed its importance with Smiley, reminding him, with crushing obliviousness, of the library’s “excellent” example.
Smiley was finally caught in June 2005, after he left an X-Acto blade in the Beinecke Library at Yale. Mr. Blanding’s attempt to catalog and quantify Smiley’s loot is admirable. Smiley admitted to stealing 97 maps. Others estimate the figure to be double that or more. Without Smiley’s cooperation, which he initially promised the author, the exercise is inevitably futile. He traded primarily with fellow dealers, who operated on trust. For common maps, the more stops along the way, the colder the trail. Once Smiley was uncovered, only the most assiduous archivists were able to link him. The Beinecke reclaimed its copy of Gerard de Jode’s “Speculum Orbis Terrarum,” worth approximately $125,000, which New Haven police found on Smiley, through recourse to its distinctive pattern of holes, where wood-boring insects (“bookworms”) had chewed through the paper.
Following his trial in 2005 and 2006, which Mr. Blanding recounts with gusto, Smiley served three years in prison and was ordered to pay reparations. Since his release, he has worked in catering, landscaping and website consultation, keeping his house in Martha’s Vineyard and little else. He now goes by “Ed.” (By this point, the reader will be glad to see the last of Sebec, Smiley’s travails in which are wearyingly told.) Although Smiley’s crimes were nonviolent, it’s hard to feel anything but sadness at the conclusion of Mr. Blanding’s fair-minded account.
Mr. Blanding’s publisher has compared his chronicle to an excellent pair of recent titles, Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo’s “Provenance” and Benjamin Wallace’s “The Billionaire’s Vinegar.” While “The Map Thief” is no less stimulating, its moral implications fundamentally differ. In “Provenance,” con man John Drewe insinuated himself into archives and libraries to bolster the credibility of an accomplice’s forged paintings. In “The Billionaire’s Vinegar,” one is struck less by the duplicity of Hardy Rodenstock, who fabricated rare vintages, than the pretensions of his victims. Smiley, conversely, carved up prized atlases and stole from public institutions, the hospitality and resources of which he had long enjoyed.
Mr. Blanding’s most moving passages commemorate those who helped build and, bit by bit, envisage the world as we know it: the Alexandrian polymath Eratosthenes, whose third-century B.C. approximation of the Earth’s circumference was only 100 miles off the mark; Martin Waldseemüller, whose 1507 map was the first to label the Western Hemisphere’s southern continent “America”; and the greatest mapmaker of them all, Gerard Mercator, whose eponymous mid-16th-century “projection” enabled sailors to accurately plan far-flung voyages. These men groped bravely for light. Smiley, who spent decades marveling at and trading on their achievements, spurned it.
Mr. Carter is an M.B.A. candidate at Columbia Business School.