“French prosecutors on Thursday sought prison terms of up to seven years for a group of Hungarians on trial over accusations they stole rare maps worth millions of euros from a string of French libraries,” Agence France-Presse reported yesterday (Expatica France, The Local). The group of seven reportedly cut maps from books in libraries in cities like Lille, Nancy and Toulouse; they were caught when one of them was stopped by Hungarian customs officials. We usually talk about map thieves as single, even singular individuals, but a gang of map thieves? Move aside, Smiley. [Tony Campbell/WMS]
In April 2017, the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh made a shocking discovery in the course of a routine insurance appraisal of its rare book holdings in the library’s main Oakland branch: some 314 rare books, folios, maps and plates were missing. News of the thefts was finally made public last month: see coverage from CBS Pittsburgh, Hyperallergic, Library Journal, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and Smithsonian magazine, among others. The police do have suspects in the thefts, which had apparently taken place over a long period of time; the total value of the stolen items is around $5 million. A full list of the stolen items (PDF) has been posted, and includes maps by Hondius, Jefferys, Ogilby and Ortelius, as well as two copies of the Italian translation of Ptolemy’s Geography. Make no mistake: as thefts of rare maps and books go, this is a staggeringly large incident. [Tony Campbell]
Michigan State University’s Map Library received an anonymous package in the mail yesterday . . .
We received an anonymous package in the mail today. pic.twitter.com/UvNxZNRn3R
— MSU Map Library (@MSUMapLib) March 28, 2016
There’s a story here, and it’ll almost certainly never be told.
Bland’s career predated Forbes Smiley’s (he lacked Smiley’s ostensible pedigree) and was the focus of Miles Harvey’s 2000 book The Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime (Amazon, iBooks).
Smiley was, of course, the subject of Michael Blanding’s 2014 book The Map Thief (Amazon, iBooks; see my review). Blanding is on a bit of a campus speaking tour at the moment, discussing the Smiley case. He’s at the University of Florida tonight, the University of Miami tomorrow night, and more college campuses in April and May.
After Forbes Smiley was sentenced to 3½ years in prison for stealing nearly 100 maps from a number of different libraries, and maps were returned to the libraries he stole them from, there were still some missing pieces to the puzzle. There were maps in Smiley’s possession that had not been claimed; there were maps missing from libraries that Smiley did not admit to stealing, though he was recorded as the last person to see the map before it went missing.
E. Forbes Smiley III was a well-known and well-connected map dealer, an expert who helped build the Slaughter and Leventhal map collections. Then in 2005 he was caught—on videotape—stealing maps from Yale University’s Beinecke Library. Libraries he had frequented scrambled to check their own holdings and found additional maps missing. Smiley, who cooperated with the authorities, would eventually be sentenced to 3½ years for stealing nearly 100 maps from the British, Boston Public, New York Public, Harvard and Yale libraries, among others. The libraries believed he stole many more.
With The Map Thief, Michael Blanding presents a book-length exploration of the Forbes Smiley affair, which stunned map collectors and map libraries alike in 2005. Its publication, coming nine years after Smiley’s arrest and four years after his release from prison, is something of an anticlimax, especially for those of us who followed the case so closely as it unfolded (I blogged about it more than 60 times, myself).
Map thieves fascinate us, even if they themselves are not that fascinating (see, for example, the essential blandness of Gilbert Bland, the subject of a previous book about map thefts, Miles Harvey’s Island of Lost Maps), because of what they steal. As stolen goods, antique maps are a curiosity: like art, but more stealable, because there are few copies, not just one.
In 2005 and 2006 my map blog, The Map Room, was full of posts about one E. Forbes Smiley III, who had been caught stealing rare maps from the Beinecke Library at Yale University. As is often the case with map thieves, Smiley was found to be responsible for many other map thefts from other libraries, and suspected in other thefts. Smiley was sentenced to 30 months in prison. (I posted a lot about the Smiley case: see The Map Room’s Map Thefts category archives.)
I knew there would have to be a book on the Smiley case at some point, and one is coming out next month: The Map Thief, whose author, Michael Blanding, has managed to interview Smiley himself, and promises new information about the case. I’m really looking forward to seeing how well Blanding has managed to tell this particular tale, which consumed so much of my attention seven or eight years ago.