E. Forbes Smiley III was a renowned antiquarian map dealer. That is, he was so until June 8, 2005, when librarians at the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University discovered an X-Acto blade on the floor by the seat where Smiley had been working, examining book after book containing rare maps. When Smiley was quickly apprehended, his pockets were stuffed with maps worth tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars. At least one had been removed from a book he had been examining at the Beinecke that day.
On September 27, 2006, Smiley was sentenced to three and a half years in prison and required to pay some $2 million in restitution. It turns out that he had been a prolific thief, and he confessed to stealing nearly 100 maps from libraries and institutions up and down the East Coast and even London. Smiley cooperated with the FBI, helping to track down many of the maps he said he had stolen, which led to some leniency on the part of the judge at the time of his sentencing.
But it remains unclear whether Smiley was entirely forthcoming about how many maps he actually stole, as theorized by Michael Blanding in his new book, The Map Thief. Early on, Smiley agreed to speak openly with Blanding for the book, but he quickly clammed up. “I found him to be very genuine and forthcoming in some ways,” Blanding says, “but then he was a complicated character, and at other times I felt like he would not want to delve into certain subjects, particularly about how he did the theft or how many maps he stole. It made me suspicious about whether he was hiding something.”
Smiley is a grandiose character, and he seems time and again to be trapped by the impracticality of his own grand gestures. Oddly, he seems to have been motivated to thievery largely because of the small town of Sebek, Maine. There he bought a post office, a general store—both of which he refurbished—and employed a number of the townspeople as part of his desire to remake the town in an image of idyllic small-town New England. “I found it really fascinating that most of the money he made from stealing antique maps actually went to this small town that you could barely find on a map,” Blanding says. But pouring money into the town, and forced to devote resources to a lawsuit brought by some Sebek residents unhappy with Smiley’s plans, the maps dealer became increasingly strapped for cash and may have turned to theft as a solution.
Smiley seems to have been generous in other ways, compounding the complexity of his motivations. Many antiquarian map dealers are supported by one or two wealthy patrons, whom they work with to build up large collections, typically built around some guiding principle or theme. Smiley worked for many years sourcing a monumental collection of historical maps of the early colonies in the mid-Atlantic states, and then, eventually, helped to coordinate the donation of this collection to the New York Public Library—one of the places from where he also stole maps.
When Smiley was outed, many libraries refused to publicly admit that their collections had been victimized, particularly out of fear that they might lose potential donors. There was an embarrassment among libraries that, entrusted as custodians of these rare materials, they’d fallen short of that mission. “A number of them have made security improvements,” Blanding says, “installing cameras or more elaborate inspections when people go in and leave.” But the reticence on the part of libraries may have prevented all stones from going unturned in the case—and Blanding believes that a number of still-missing maps may be tied to Smiley. “I did find evidence that his story didn’t hold up. I did wonder that maybe he worried he would have been on the hook for crimes he never admitted to. Another mystery.”
Walter Heymann is a freelance writer and screenwriter who lives in Los Angeles.