On the afternoon of June 8, 2005, a librarian at Yale University Library was shocked to discover an X-acto knife blade on the floor of the reading room. Library staff traced it to a bespectacled, silver-haired dealer in antiquarian maps who was looking at rare books and atlases that day. When he was followed out of the library, E. Forbes Smiley III was found to have four maps stolen from the books he looked at there. After an FBI investigation, Smiley eventually admitted to stealing 97 maps worth more than $3 million from libraries around the country. The question is, Why did he do it? That’s the question I set out to explore in my new book, The Map Thief, published by Gotham Books this week. Along the way, I discovered many new facts about the case, and about maps themselves. Here are five:
1) Maps are much easier to steal than art
Works of art are generally one-of-a-kind pieces that hang in museums where everyone knows where they are. It’s hard enough for thieves to break and in and try and steal one; but it’s even harder for them to try and sell it. For that reason, most art thieves are apprehended soon after their crimes—or else, the art goes underground for decades. Rare maps, meanwhile, may be printed in thousands of copies—of which a dozen or even a hundred may have survived over the centuries. Most of those copies exist in libraries, contained in books or in folders full of similar maps that are often poorly catalogued and sometimes poorly guarded. Once a thief walks out with one, he can sell it for thousands of dollars, or even tens of thousands of dollars, to dealers or collectors who may never even suspect it is stolen—and may hang it in public view without anyone else suspecting it either. Smiley got away with this kind of theft for at least four years, and would have gotten away with it for longer had he not carelessly dropped the blade on the floor.
2) Most maps are bad—but bad for a reason
It’s hard to put ourselves back in time to the way the world was before Google Maps and satellite technology, back when mapmakers had to rely on primitive instruments and dubious travelers’ reports to sketch the border and coastlines of the world. But hundreds of years ago, cartographers introduced all kinds of errors into maps, some mistakenly and others intentionally. A misjudgment by explorers in the 17th century, for example, led to California being drawn as an island for over a hundred years. But other mistakes were politically motivated, such as the inclusion of a Northwest Passage on Dutch and English maps for centuries; or the introduction of fictitious towns and cities onto areas a particular country was trying to colonize. During the 18th century, France and England battled over North America for years with maps that drew boundary lines in different places before they ever fired a shot in an actual war over the continent. Oftentimes these mistakes, intentionally or not, increase the value of maps, prized by collectors for the stories they tell about the area during a certain time period.
3) Map dealing can be a cutthroat business
Far from the image of map collecting being a rarified pursuit followed in a gentlemanly manner, serious map dealing can be competitive and cutthroat, with a small number of dealers battling it out at auctions over a limited number of rare and valuable artifacts. In the 1990s, the value of maps soared when they became popular for decorating by the rich and famous. Map dealer Forbes Smiley found it difficult to compete, even though he was one of the most knowledgeable dealers in his field. Always a bad businessman, Smiley began getting squeezed by other dealers better at competing at auction and sewing up valuable clients. He began falling further and further into debt, until he began to desperately look at theft as a way out of his predicament.
4) The roots of Smiley’s thefts were laid in a small town in Maine
Forbes Smiley always loved New England history; he grew up in a small town in New Hampshire and always lamented the way it became overrun with commercialization. In college, he fantasized about creating a utopian village with his friends that they could design to their liking. Years later, he actively sought to create that town in the small hamlet of Sebec, Maine, where he bought the post office and a restaurant and general store and sought to create the perfect New England village. Unfortunately, not all residents shared his vision, and he ended up getting in a legal dispute that cost him money and prestige—eventually leading him in part to steal maps to make up for his losses. While some of the money from the maps he stole went into nice clothes, fancy meals, and plane trips, the vast majority went into his grandiose scheme in Sebec.
5) Smiley didn’t admit all of the maps he stole
In an interview, Smiley told me that he didn’t know of a single map he stole that he didn’t admit to authorities. Yet, in my research, I uncovered nearly a dozen maps that libraries were able to recover after the FBI had given up their own hunt. The libraries relied on physical evidence such as smudges or impressions on the paper in order to identify and claim the maps they did; but many of them also have circumstantial evidence pointing to even more maps that Smiley stole. For example, some libraries are missing copies of maps that Smiley admitted taking from other libraries, and in other cases, he sold extremely rare maps to dealers that existed in only a few copies. Without definitive proof, however, the libraries weren’t able to recover them. Never a good businessman, Smiley may be telling the truth when he says he can’t recall all of the maps he stole. But either way, we may never know for sure how many maps he got away with taking.