The Map Thief
Q&A with Author Michael Blanding
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.