The strange, mysterious world of rare maps—and the even stranger mystery of the man who stole them for years without getting caught.
Journalist Blanding (The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, 2010) presents a detailed account of the case of E. Forbes Smiley III, the high-living Gatsby-esque map dealer who scored millions fencing rare maps. Although deeply knowledgeable and well-respected in his field, Smiley also wanted the good life, and he racked up a mountain of debt trying to bankroll fancy homes and ill-advised property schemes. A charmer who won the trust of librarians and was deeply aware of their haphazard filing systems, Smiley easily developed a second career in thievery. He got away with it for at least four years, until the fateful day in 2005 when a Yale security guard noticed he dropped a razor blade on the floor of the rare book and manuscript library. Blanding delves deep into both Smiley’s world and the history of mapmaking, focusing in particular on what makes a map valuable. Some are simply meticulous works of art; others helped forge the destinies of countries or document lands that no longer exist (such as the short-lived Roanoke Colony). There are also uniquely primitive maps that are wildly off the mark about undiscovered lands, harkening back to an age when North America was still known as “Terra Incognita.” As an attorney involved in Smiley’s case put it, these maps “drew the lines between where knowledge ended and imagination began. They represented man’s timeless drive to explore the unknown and bring definition to the void.” In the modern world, they have also become an affordable means of conspicuous consumption for people who can’t quite swing a Picasso or Monet.
A fascinating story of ambitions high and low, the ancient yearning to chart a new world and the eternal lure of a quick buck.