The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

Edward Forbes Smiley III was a charming man, a family man with a good sense of humor who was a consummate dealer of rare maps. He was also a fraud. Smiley came from a solidly middle class background and though he had siblings he spent a lot of time in the library as a child. He went to an "experimental" private school and a small academically good college where he was the guy "that just knew more than anyone else." After college followed a girlfriend to London, where he fell in love with old maps.

In 1979, when Smiley (who called himself "Forbes") was 23 he found a job in B. Altman and Company's rare books department. Using the job as an internship he studied Altman's inventory and the rare maps in the New York Public Library. He acquired quite a bit of knowledge and in 1987 decided that he would start trading in the maps, starting his own company "E. Forbes Smiley III."

Smiley started the company by buying a rare atlas, taking it apart and then selling off the individual maps. Map sales at the time were done on the "gentleman's agreement' method - money doesn't necessarily change hands at the time of sale but there are deposits and promises of checks. Smiley's check for the first atlas bounced. The seller of the atlas waited for weeks while Smiley sold off pieces of the atlas to make some money. This lack of financial acumen would be Smiley's downfall. He continued in the rare map market for years, building up a client base and making money.

On June 8, 2005 Smiley's world came to an abrupt halt when an exacto knife fell out of his pocket while in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. The librarian saw it and alerted security. Then the library staff started going through the items Smiley had looked at and they discovered that maps were missing. The FBI was brought in and Smiley's downfall was complete.  Smiley was charged with stealing 108 maps even though the searches
showed 256 maps were missing from a variety of world class institutions. He served 3 years and 6 days in a federal prison.

This was an interesting book. Maybe because I'm interested in old maps but also because it documents the world of rare map trading and the history of some of the missing maps. The library's maps were woefully unprotected, the dealers worked on handshake deals and the provenance of the maps is never really looked at. It was a recipe for fraud. Some of the institutions didn't even say anything publicly because they didn't want any bad publicity to effect their donations! This is not your normal light holiday read but it will serve as an interesting one!

Check your catalog
Download the ebook

Comments List