Maps have long exerted a special fascination on viewers--both as beautiful works of art and as practical tools to navigate the world. Read more...
Maps have long exerted a special fascination on viewers--both as beautiful works of art and as practical tools to navigate the world. But to those who collect them, the map trade can be a cutthroat business, inhabited by quirky and sometimes disreputable characters in search of a finite number of extremely rare objects.
Once considered a respectable antiquarian map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley spent years doubling as a map thief --until he was finally arrested slipping maps out of books in the Yale University library. The Map Thief delves into the untold history of this fascinating high-stakes criminal and the inside story of the industry that consumed him.
Acclaimed reporter Michael Blanding has interviewed all the key players in this stranger-than-fiction story, and shares the fascinating histories of maps that charted the New World, and how they went from being practical instruments to quirky heirlooms to highly coveted objects. Though pieces of the map theft story have been written before, Blanding is the first reporter to explore the story in full--and had the rare privilege of having access to Smiley himself after he'd gone silent in the wake of his crimes. Moreover, although Smiley swears he has admitted to all of the maps he stole, libraries claim he stole hundreds more--and offer intriguing clues to prove it. Now, through a series of exclusive interviews with Smiley and other key individuals, Blanding teases out an astonishing tale of destruction and redemption.
The Map Thief interweaves Smiley's escapades with the stories of the explorers and mapmakers he knew better than anyone. Tracking a series of thefts as brazen as the art heists in Provenance and a subculture as obsessive as the oenophiles in The Billionaire's Vinegar, Blanding has pieced together an unforgettable story of high-stakes crime.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2014-04-14
- Reviewer: Staff
Considered by many to be a reputable antique map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley III was also a thief who stole hundreds of valuable maps (some estimates put his haul at over 200) from libraries and other institutions and then sold them. Here, reporter Blanding (The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink) examines and contextualizes the curious case. What began as the occasional pilferage in order to keep his business afloat ballooned as Smiley’s debt increased exponentially, due in no small part to a grand lifestyle—the most glaring example of which was Smiley’s renovation of a rustic farmhouse, including a $105,000 kitchen from Italy. He also spent enormous sums in an effort to revive the struggling town by opening a restaurant and other businesses. In this well-researched account, Blanding profiles Smiley as well as dealers, clients, librarians, and mapmakers, including Gerard Mercator and Sir Robert Dudley (creator of the first atlas of the world’s coastlines). While Smiley’s actions are shocking, perhaps the most outrageous fact in the book is the revelation of his prison sentence: a mere three and a half years. This is a highly readable profile of a narcissist who got in over his head and lost it all. Agent: Elisabeth Weed, Weed Literary. (June)
Old maps in the hands of a master criminal
In his heyday, E. Forbes Smiley III was larger than life, a man who excelled at virtually everything he set his hand to. Although his name smacked of sitcom pretentiousness, he was never the rich buffoon. Raised in a middle-class, well-educated family in New Hampshire, Smiley became a superb college student, an engaging conversationalist, a gifted woodworker and a generous and loyal friend.
After college, he turned his considerable talents to the rare maps trade, and within a few years was an expert at it. His taste for the good life, however, and zeal for creating his own idealized surroundings eventually outstripped his legitimate income. So he began stealing and selling maps from university and public libraries in an increasingly feverish effort to stay ahead of his bills. He was caught in 2005 and served three years in prison before returning to his family in Martha’s Vineyard, where he has since scratched out a living as a landscaper, laborer and web designer.
The Map Thief, Michael Blanding’s captivating account of Smiley’s career, also provides first-rate summaries of the histories of map-making and collecting, as well as vivid profiles of the principal players who aided Smiley and helped bring him down. Appropriately for such a story, the book is rich with historically important maps and maps that show the territories Smiley occupied during crucial periods of his life. One of the latter is a map of Sebec, Maine, a small town Smiley attempted to transform into his vision of an ideal New England village. This project alone is estimated to have set him back almost a million dollars.
Initially, Smiley agreed to cooperate with the author in writing this book, but after giving two interviews, he withdrew, leaving Blanding to piece together the rest of the narrative through interviews with his friends, business associates and a growing throng of adversaries.
Although this is a sad story brilliantly told, it hardly amounts to a tragedy. Though Smiley’s hubris led to his downfall, he emerges as such a versatile and resilient figure that one expects we will hear from him again.