Review: 'The Map Thief,' by Michael Blanding

  • Article by: CHUCK HAGA , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 21, 2014 - 2:46 PM

NONFICTION: Strapped for cash, a respected dealer of rare antiquarian maps did the unthinkable, stealing a valuable map from a university library. It was just the first of many, until a dropped X-acto knife blew his cover.

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Maybe when you were a teenager discovering the wide, fascinating world in books, you delighted especially in the maps they contained: maps of buried treasure and magical places, maps of conquest and exploration. And maybe you wrote to tourism offices in all the states, and then to foreign embassies, begging for maps, and the mailman brought Delaware and Peru to your door, and Switzerland laid out on a gigantic piece of art that showed cities and rivers and mountain ranges in beautiful pastels.

Maybe you were a map collector, and you can understand the hold that maps had on E. Forbes Smiley III.

Michael Blanding tells the story of Smiley, a widely known and respected collector of rare antiquarian maps, which he bought and sold to other dealers and wealthy clients for $30,000, $100,000 or more: centuries-old maps drawn by early explorers of America or that advanced the claims of one colonizing power over another.

This is great history, art history and insightful geography, but at its core “The Map Thief” is a crime report. It is a suspenseful tale of felony theft — the theft of cultural heritage — by a man who presented himself as one of the chief interpreters and safeguards of that heritage.

Accustomed to a high-end lifestyle but plagued by financial reverses, Smiley over the course of several years removed rare and valuable maps from books and loose collections at some of the world’s greatest libraries. He was able to do this because curators knew him as an esteemed collector and dealer, a trusted colleague. He could then sell the maps he had taken, folded carefully and slipped into a pocket, because he was so well known, so admired and trusted, and because these maps, unlike famous single works of art, exist today in a number of examples in various public collections and private hands. He could tell a buyer that he had obtained a copy from a private collector who wished to remain anonymous.

Smiley easily found buyers willing to part with small fortunes for lovely first printed glimpses of the New England coastline, the early competing claims of Great Britain and France, the probing sea charts of Dutch and Spanish merchants and explorers.

In an interview after he was caught in 2005, he told Blanding about the first time he stole a map, likely a 1675 map of New England, at Yale’s Sterling Memorial Library. He knew the maps there were not precisely catalogued, and one probably would not be missed.

“I am looking at a piece of paper that I can fold and put in my pocket, that people in New York expect me to show up with because I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years legitimately,” Smiley recalled. “And I can get thirty thousand dollars … that afternoon.”

Smiley’s downfall was tragicomic; he dropped an X-acto knife while “inspecting” a rare book, which caused a librarian to check items he had requested in the past for missing material and to increase security when he returned. In the end, he pleaded guilty to stealing nearly 100 rare maps worth more than $3 million. He was sentenced in 2006 to prison, where he served three years.

“The Map Thief” is a gripping, suspenseful tale, told by a veteran investigative reporter. And yes, it comes with maps.

 

Chuck Haga, a former Star Tribune reporter, lives and writes in Grand Forks, N.D., where he wishes he still had his wall map of Switzerland.

 

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  • THE MAP THIEF

    By: Michael Blanding.

    Publisher: Gotham Books, 300 pages, $27.50.

    Review: This is great history, but at its core “The Map Thief” is a crime report, and a suspenseful tale of cultural theft by a man who presented himself as a safeguard of cultural heritage.

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