Review: The Map Thief

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 caughton 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.

Unlike Bland, who was an interloper whose catalogues suddenly filled up with suspiciously good items, Smiley was very much an insider in the world of map collecting. With his posh name and pedigreed affect, he looked like old money, though his origins were a bit more modest. E. Forbes Smiley III had privileged access that Ed Smiley (the name he goes by now, incidentally) could never dream of. He filled the role of the “gentleman thief,” an epithet that has since been applied to two other book thieves, William Simon Jacques and Farhad Hakimzadeh—as though the Thomas Crowns of the world suddenly got a taste for old maps.

So I knew that there would be a book about Forbes Smiley some day. Though to be honest I always thought it would come from Kim Martineau, whose reporting for the Hartford Courant provided so much of the bedrock material of the news coverage of this case. But Michael Blanding, an investigative journalist based in Boston, has taken up the task, thanks in large part to Smiley’s temporary willingness to be interviewed. While Smiley changed his mind and backed away, those interviews were sufficient, along with a good deal of journalistic legwork, to transform Blanding’s project from the originally intended article to the book we have here, which provides a view, albeit partial and incomplete by necessity, of someone who has until now been rather inscrutable.

Because Smiley cut the interviews short, we are missing much about the thefts themselves. The key events are largely narrated from the public record, as are the viewpoints of the libraries and other key figures, and the issues around library inventory and security. As someone who followed the case very closely, I found myself reminded, rather than enlightened: the story unfolded much as I remembered. (As I said, I did post an awful lot about the case; I am not exactly the typical reader.)

Had Blanding limited himself to recapitulating the known facts this would have made for a slight volume in every sense. The value Blanding adds to the reportage is the context he wraps around the Smiley case, context that helps us understand the how and why of the case. There are three aspects to that context:

One, by detailing Smiley’s work in map collecting and with map libraries, we get a detailed look at his history with the trade, his expertise, and his relationships with some very serious names in the field. There is a reason, in other words, why Smiley’s arrest sent shock waves throughout the map collecting community: he was known, he was respected, and moreover he had elite access. Stealing maps is all too easy, and it’s even easier with insider knowledge.

Two, by interspersing his narrative with segues into the history of cartography, so that we better understand the importance of the artifacts that Smiley stole, and why libraries complained so bitterly when Smiley’s sentence was, they thought, so light.

And three, by building a portrait of Smiley himself, the person beyond the map dealer: his tendency to act like a personable, benign dictator that came out in his social life and in his conflicts with the residents of Sebec, Maine, where he ran several businesses; his money troubles, exacerbated by financial mismanagement and the cost of keeping up appearances; his grievances against institutions and individuals in the map community.

In the end we get a sense of Smiley’s motives, but the hard question remains: are all the maps he stole accounted for? There are missing maps that the libraries believe Smiley stole, but cannot prove it. And there are still maps recovered from Smiley that as of last year still have not been claimed. There was always a sense during the proceedings that Smiley was holding something back; at this point we may never know whether he still is. Map thieves are usually enigmatic, and Smiley is no exception.

The Map Thief comes out today from Gotham Books.

I received electronic and hardcover review copies from the publisher.

Amazon | iBooks