The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-map Dealer who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps

by Michael Blanding

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by Michael Blanding

I love maps. I do. In all my dreams of having the “perfect” room (you can go ahead and imagine a library because all my perfect rooms are library dreams) it has maps all over the place. We moved into our current home about 4 years ago (wow, time flies! I remember unpacking all those books when we got here just like it was yesterday) and I am finally getting around to decorating our bedroom. I found the most amazing map printed on glass over some translucent turquoise  painting. It is awesome. I keep waiting for it to go down in price to something remotely reasonable, and one day IT WILL BE MINE. What I’m saying is, I get a guy wanting to steal maps. I understand why people would collect them and preserve them. In short, I get this book.

E. Forbes Smiley III is just as pretentious as his name suggests and perhaps the greater story is that of keeping up appearances and the money needed to do it. Michael Blanding does not hide his personal interest in the story. Blanding gets it. He loves maps, too. He loves them so much that when he read a story about Smiley in The New Yorker, he had to know more. He writes in first person, like a investigative reporter. Usually, that sort of thing gets on my nerves, but Blanding’s interest in the story didn’t get in the way. He pulled back at just the right moments, and as a result the reader feels like they are embarking on an adventure with the author, that together they could unlock the mystery of how a respected antiquities dealer could blatantly steal, defraud, and deface his friends and clients. Smiley was a tubby, bookish, middle class kid who had a talent of ‘narrating his own story’ according to those who knew him. He could expand and make himself more that what he was. In Star Wars talk we sometimes call that delusions of grandeur, but I digress. He had a love of literature, history, architecture, and a passion for throwing himself into projects. Whatever he did, he did with gusto. He got into map dealing by accident, but took it up with the enthusiasm that he did any other project. Though there is no consensus when Smiley started stealing maps (or even the actual number of maps he stole), Smiley was able to take advantage on how maps were (and are) kept and catalogued at educations of higher learning and art auctions. In many cases (particularly that of the New York Public Library Collection) he robbed from friends, the very collections he had assisted to create.

In June 8th, 2005, he was finally caught in the act, at Yale library, of all places. Though there had been rumblings for years, and Smiley had been under specific suspicion in certain cases, no one had ever had any proof. There are three camps when talking about Smiley and Blanding interviewed all three. First, the enemies, those who HATED Smiley who’d crossed paths with him in personal or business matters and found him dishonest, repugnant, and a bit of a bully. Second, those who loved him and felt that Smiley was a man with great potential, and great talent who just got in over his head. Third, those who’d been good friends with Smiley and left feeling personally betrayed. They had a hard time reconciling the Smiley who they’d spent time with, and the Smiley who could have defaced treasures for gain. I, of course, am of the opinion that he might be a sociopath. I love to diagnose people as sociopaths but in my mind he is a classic case of someone who wants to present himself and his family a certain way. Even when his business was failing and he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to clients, he continued building a monstrously garish summer home in Martha’s Vineyard, and let as not even talk about his paltry restitution payments.

Blanding does an incredible job of explaining the intricate world of dealing in maps to someone like me, the girl who keeps checking the zgallerie website in hopes that the map she wants will dip under a thousand dollars. He describes all the key players in such away that it doesn’t feel like an endless stream of “now who was that again?” but real people who the reader can care about and be invested in their stories. He also presents an accurate picture of his dealings with Forbes Smiley. Blanding outlines challenges within the map dealing community which dips into the art and antiquities community as well. Provenance, provenance, provenance, and the fact that some collectors know they are getting stolen goods and don’t care. As evidenced, there are maps Smiley admitted to stealing that are still out there. Then, he highlights that some universities refused to admit anything was stolen in the first place because that reflects negatively and could cost them donors dollars. My verdict, Smiley’s crime was not victimless, he got off easy, and he’s not even a cautionary tale, but he does make a good story, so read this book.

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