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How One Man Ripped Off Millions in Rare Maps, Including in Chicago

By Quinn Ford | August 18, 2014 8:39am | Updated on August 18, 2014 8:45am
 The Map Thief. Michael Blanding. E. Forbes Smiley III. The Newberry Library.
The Map Thief
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GOLD COAST — Chicago's Newberry Library has roughly 500,000 maps — "one of the greatest map collections in the country, if not the world," says Jim Akerman, the Newberry's map curator.

But there's at least one map that's missing from the library's collection, a 1695 colonial map of South Carolina.

It's been missing for nearly a decade, stolen from the research library at 60 W. Walton St. by a well-respected map dealer: E. Forbes Smiley III.

Quinn Ford says the library hasn't given up on finding the map:

Smiley, who was arrested in 2005, just months after he stole two Newberry maps, would plead guilty in federal court to lifting 97 rare maps totaling $3 million from libraries across the country. The story grabbed national headlines and sent shock waves through the lucrative and highly secretive world of map collecting.

The location  of the missing Newberry map remains a mystery. But some clues behind the enigma that is Smiley — who was a well-known map dealer at the height of his career as a criminal — is found in journalist and author Michael Blanding's new book, "The Map Thief" (Gotham Books).

Why Smiley, 49 at the time of his arrest, began stealing maps is complicated, but in its simplest terms, it came down to money, said Blanding, who is scheduled to speak at the Newberry on Sept. 27.

"I think he cultivated a very successful career as a map dealer, but he was always just a little overextended," Blanding said. "He was never good with money. He was always just kind of chasing the next check."

Indeed, Smiley told Blanding in an interview: "I stole for the money. You could write that in one sentence. The question I have to ask myself is, 'Why did I think I needed the money so much?'"

An East Coast native who lived on Martha's Vineyard, Smiley was one of the top map collectors in New York. But the field had grown increasingly competitive since the 1990s when map prices began rising and prompted new dealers to enter the business, Blanding said.

Smiley kept up the lifestyle of a successful map dealer, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a new home and other luxuries. Blanding said Smiley also poured money into a small town in Maine, buying the village's post office, general store and a restaurant and refurbishing a children's park.

It was Smiley's attempt to "recreate this perfect vision of this small-town New England life," Blanding said. The spending was a way for Smiley to cultivate an image of himself as a caretaker and someone people looked up to, the author said.

But extravagance also left Smiley in a deep financial hole, and rather than give up the lifestyle of a jet-setting map collector, Smiley began stealing rare maps he knew he could easily sell for tens of thousands of dollars.

Part of the reason Smiley was able to steal maps for years without being caught was his reputation with libraries and his gregarious personality, something Blanding saw firsthand in speaking with Smiley for the book.

"Like everyone else, I think I was very taken by his charm," Blanding said. "He's very personable. He's very charming. He's got this great big belly laugh when he finds something funny."

Maps also prove easier to steal than, say, rare artwork. In many cases, there could be an unknown number of copies of a particular rare map, and libraries often poorly cataloged their map collections.

In Smiley's case, some libraries did not know maps were missing until after news of his arrest. He was caught at Yale University's Beinecke Library after accidentally dropping an X-Acto knife.

Selling the stolen maps was easy for Smiley because he had a large network of collectors, Blanding said. There is also a culture of secrecy in the map trade: Dealers don't want competitors to know what they are selling or who they are selling to, so no one knew how many rare maps Smiley was selling.

"Each one of these dealers had a little piece of the puzzle, and because they all kept their cards close to their chests, nobody could see the whole picture," Blanding said.

Indeed, even after Smiley was arrested, affected libraries were hesitant to disclose the thefts. Blanding writes of how the Newberry had discovered that Smiley had visited the library twice and identified four books he had looked at. Two of the books had maps missing.

One was "a bad copy" of John Smith's map of Virginia by Englishman Ralph Hall, decorated with animals and sea monsters, Blanding writes. The other was the 1695 map of South Carolina.

The Newberry Library's map curator at the time, Robert Karrow, called on libraries to release a complete list of exactly which maps were missing. Though he acknowledged "full disclosure will be embarrassing," Karrow told other curators, "We must begin to restore the trust by telling what we know, when we know it, and letting the chips fall where they may."

Akerman, the Newberry's map currator, said libraries sometimes shy away from disclosure because they want potential donors to believe their collections will be safe.

"I think historically it's the case that institutions are embarrassed when something like this happens," Akerman said. "But [openness] is the most effective way of stopping these things from happening in the future and stopping people like Smiley in their tracks."

Like other libraries, Akerman said the Newberry has beefed up security since Smiley was arrested. Viewing rooms now contain security cameras, and the library has been working to complete cataloging each map in its collection.

At the closing of Smiley's trial, the map thief said he was "deeply sorry" for his crimes and that "I have hurt many people."

"I stole very valuable research materials from institutions that made it their business to provide those materials to the public for valuable research," Smiley said. "I am deeply ashamed for having done that." 

His attorney argued for a lenient sentence because Smiley had confessed and help relocate some of the stolen maps.

Blanding credits the Newberry's Karrow for delivering "the most powerful" argument against going easy on Smiley. Appearing before the judge, Karrow said Smiley preyed on vulnerable institutions devoted to helping researchers.

"If Mr. Smiley never steals again, his fame and monetary value of the objects he pillaged almost guarantee that he will have imitators. And some of them will learn from his mistakes and outwit us again," Karrow said, asking for a sentence that would "tell Mr. Smiley's successors that the stakes in this game of cultural hijacking have been raised."

Smiley was sentenced to 42 months in prison, infuriating many curators and experts in the field as too light a punishment.

The location of the maps that haven't been recovered remains a mystery. One current map dealer tells Blanding that they are in possession of collectors "who think there is no better protector of items than themselves."

"Unfortunately, the FBI wouldn't give me info on specific maps," Blanding said. "In some cases, collectors refused to surrender maps and, absent specific proof, there was nothing authorities could do to recover them. In at least one case, Smiley lost a map as well."

Today, Smiley works as a $12-an-hour laborer in Martha's Vineyard and picks up extra cash designing websites, a skill he learned in prison, and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Blanding said Smiley's story captivated him because he has always been interested in maps, ever since he was a kid. Blanding is something of an amateur map collector himself, especially when it comes to subway maps. He has maps from Boston, San Francisco, Berlin and London, among others. He says he's still working on getting a CTA map.

But unlike Smiley or some late-night revelers in Chicago, Blanding said he has never been desperate enough to steal a subway map.

"I haven't resorted to that in any case yet," he said with a laugh.

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