Map Theft, Part Two – The Case of E. Forbes Smiley III

The most important recent book on map collections and their protection is Michael Blanding’s book about E. Forbes Smiley III, the well-known dealer with a reputation for uncovering significant maps and offering them to collectors and institutions at what were seen as reasonable prices; The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare Book Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps (New York: Gotham Books, 2014). Smiley was caught stealing maps at the Beinecke Library at Yale University in 2005, generating considerable concern given his frequent research in prominent map collections in the United States and Europe. As it turns out, he was the most high profile thief to target maps who has been caught and whose activities have been well documented.

Blanding provides a detailed description of Smiley’s nefarious career, with a detailed blow by blow account of his activities, an inventory of what he is known to have stolen, and an accounting of what he is alleged to have stolen but that he does not admit to having taken. What the book provides is a human portrait of Smiley, generating from Blanding’s interest in finding out “what led him down the path to his crimes, turning him from map dealer to map thief” (p. 27). Some readers, especially those who are the custodians of the kinds of maps Smiley targeted, might think this is a far too sympathetic treatment of the thief. From my vantage it is a nicely balanced assessment of Smiley and the various dealers, repositories, and law enforcement agencies involved in this case. The considerable amount of information about Smiley’s personal and family life, his financial and health issues, gives us an excellent portrait of what makes someone become a thief. It is the most important study of a map thief since Miles Harvey’s book on Gilbert Bland and his activities in the mid-1960s with one important caveat – Bland was a “petty theft” in comparison to Forbes, stealing maps worth far less. Miles Harvey, Island of Lost Maps: A True Story of Cartographic Crime (New York: Random House, 1999). Harvey’s book is more interesting in its assessment of collecting and the marketplace than it is significant as an account of the map thief; for my assessment of that book, see my “Map Thefts, Library Security, Collecting, and Me: A Review of Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps,” Library and Archival Security 17, no. 2 (2001): 45-58.

It is difficult to determine who might be a thief among the readers and researchers visiting a research library or archives. Blanding argues that, “No profile exists for those who steal maps. In most cases, the motive is simply the hope for a quick payday with little risk; in some cases, however, possession itself is the goal” (p. 113). Throughout his character study, Blanding offers clues as to what such a profile might look like, such as “Once he started stealing, he said, he couldn’t see any other way out of his predicament” and “Smiley justified the thefts by telling himself that at least the items he sold would be cared for by collectors” (p. 207). Smiley appeared to be a reputable scholar, someone to ask questions of rather than to be suspicious about. Even acknowledging that archivists, librarians, and curators have become more sensitized about the aspects of improved security, as witnessed by the publication of many good manuals, (Such as Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, Protecting Your Collections: A Manual of Archival Security [Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1995]). we still have a long way to go in developing the means to protect rare and historic materials such as early maps.

One cannot fully understand the nature of theft of rare and historical materials without some sense of the marketplace where such items are sold and traded. The Blanding book is also a useful orientation to the nature of the antique or rare map trade. Blanding describes this community as “small” with a “few dozen serious dealers in the United States and fewer than a hundred worldwide” (p. 42). This peek into the antiquarian map trade is important since so much of it has been shrouded in secrecy from all involved – dealers, collectors, and research repositories. The nature of this secrecy has plagued how map thefts have been dealt with over the decades. Blanding paints a sobering picture of how research libraries and archives have responded to the pilfering of items from their collections, noting how some have continued to not maintain records of use or have failed to install security monitoring systems. It remains difficult for many of these institutions to determine if anything has been stolen. This, and their reluctance to be open when thefts do occur, has made the temptation to steal maps even greater. As a result, it is doubtful whether we will ever know the full extent of Smiley’s thefts. We know that he stole millions of dollars worth of maps, and we understand that there is a general consensus that his sentence was not a deterrent for others contemplating such crimes: “In all, he served a total of three years and six days — or about eleven days for each of the ninety-seven maps he’d admitted stealing” (p. 210).

One wonders why map collecting has recently become popular, perhaps encouraging new cases of map theft. Blanding offers observations about this, noting that it is a very recent activity since for centuries maps were seen to be tools that were used and often discarded. Blanding writes, “Perhaps the appeal of collecting is seeing the familiar outlines of human nature writ large, and your little corner of the world participating on the global stage” (p. 43). This, and the aesthetic quality of so many maps, both early and recent, makes them attractive to us. It may also be that as maps have become digital that older maps also grow in appeal. A recent popular book, Bray’s You Are Here, provides a useful survey of mapping and location technologies. He reminds us, “Mapmaking is complex work, best left to professionals. Or is it? With cheap GPS units and Internet-based mapping services, just about anyone can become a part-time cartographer, making corrections and additions to current maps or generating entirely new ones”; Hiawatha Bray, You Are Here: From the Compass to GPS, The History and Future of How We Find Ourselves (New York: Basic Books,2014), p. xii. If everyone can create his or her own maps, what would make any map special or unique? As we read about the increasing individual ability to function without traditional maps, we also begin to learn more about what makes maps so special. Bray, in reviewing the immense new technological advancements in mapping and locating ourselves in the universe, states, “Yet even with better technology, mapmaking is at best an exercise in approximation” (p. 11). This approximation leads to the expressions of human creativity that are inherent in maps, antique and contemporary. In a recent book, artists create fanciful maps. In its introduction, Tom McCarthy notes that a special challenge is the fact that the earth is spherical, but paper is flat: ”Projections are not neutral, natural or ‘given’: they are constructed, configured, underpinned by various — and quite arbitrary — conventions” (In Hans Ulrich Obrist, ed., Mapping It Out: An Alternative Atlas of Contemporary Cartographies [London: Thames and Hudson, 2014], p. 7). This partly explains why we so often use the term “mapping” to describe our efforts to conceptualize and plan future activities.

The great variations in maps, and the sometimes more artistic nature of their representation, certainly contribute to their value as collectibles and their targets for thieves. The lack of punishment for those caught pilfering maps also accentuates maps as possible spoils. One of the more difficult topics to read about is the punishment meted out to individuals discovered and convicted as map thieves. For a very long time, the tradition was for minor prison terms, although Blanding shows how these sentences have tended to get stiffer as the damage to our historical and cultural legacy has been better documented. Blanding believes that the “dealers fared the worst,” (p. 202) based on the fact that the libraries mostly got their maps back and the collectors were usually reimbursed for their losses.

The most sobering message emerging from Blanding’s book is that “Not all libraries seemed to have learned their lessons.” The author describes how, as he visited map repositories for interviews about the thefts, he was sometimes not asked to follow security protocols; such as checking his bag or coat (pp. 213-214). On the plus side, however, the institutions were able to draw on photographs and other evidence, such as matching wormholes in the purloined maps with the original books, to be able to identify many of the maps as belonging to them.

Maps are everywhere and they support us in many aspects of our lives, reminding us of our place in the world and appealing to our visual senses. It is no wonder that they are targets for theft and prime objects in the marketplace. That they are stolen, traded, and collected provide additional reminders to archivists and librarians of the value (at least as measured by dollars) of their holdings and their mission to preserve our documentary heritage. Whether the thefts and subsequent media coverage enhance society’s understanding of this archival mission is another point, one worth exploring in the future. For the time being, however, archivists, librarians, and other victims of such crimes have to become more forthright in acknowledging when and how such thefts occur.

Archivists and librarians need to be better educated about security and how to respond to thefts when they happen. Reading this study of one case ought to help them re-evaluate what they are doing in this area. They should not only include information about the nature of their holdings on the Web but information about the nature of their security systems (and, of course, they should improve these systems) as a means of discouraging potential thefts. Perhaps some day we will see archivists and librarians write some books about the successful foiling of thieves and their efforts to be more transparent about what they do in such circumstances. Studies like that by Blanding ought to inspire them in this direction.


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