But whatever else E. Forbes Smiley may be, he was bright enough to recognize the opportunity in a system where rare and irreplaceable treasures existed without sufficient funds to protect or secure them.
Between 2003 and 2005, Smiley, the central character in acclaimed investigative journalist Michael Blanding’s latest, true-crime narrative “The Map Thief,” got away with an estimated $3 million in ancient maps from places like Yale, Harvard, the New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, the British Library and the Newberry Library in Chicago.
No one knows how far Smiley’s bold plan would have taken him had he not dropped an X-Acto knife on the floor of the Yale University Library in 2005, a mistake that lead to his arrest, which shocked and upended the rare map community upon learning of his betrayal.
Although he admitted to taking 97 rare maps, about 87 of which were eventually returned with his help, libraries around the world have accused him of making off with more than 200 cartographic treasures.
On a positive note, recognition of his exploits brought to light serious lapses in library security that in many cases have been improved upon as a result.
In addition to interviewing the key players in this stranger-than-fiction tale, author Blanding shares the fascinating histories of maps that charted the New World, including how they went from being practical instruments of navigation to quirky heirlooms and ultimately coveted masterpieces.
“I have always loved maps and everything about them since I was a teenager reading fantasy novels,” said Blanding, a self-described “map geek,” who showcases a collection of international subway maps on his bedroom walls.
A Boston-based investigative journalist, Blanding’s first book, “The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink: was published by Avery/Penguin in 2010.
The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps, was released earlier this summer to much critical acclaim
In following Smiley’s story in the media, Blanding was fascinated by “this idea of a culture of people who collected old maps -- and the person who stole them.”
Once Smiley’s brief, three-year prison sentence came to an end, Blanding made a phone call that would shape his next six years.
Until that moment, Smiley never had the chance to tell his side of the story and welcomed the opportunity with open arms.
“I think he felt like the story that had been told about him was unfair and inaccurate in some way,” Blanding explained. Besides “enough time had passed and he was also getting older” and potentially wiser.
As a result, Blanding netted two info-packed interviews, the first of which was four hours long, followed by a two-hour interview.
“Basically he told me his entire life story,” Blanding said.
There were, however, two points of interest Smiley refused to address: He would not talk about how he stole the maps, nor about details of his rivalries with other map dealers.
But through “lots of legwork” and other interviews, Blanding was able to piece together the rest of the story.
In exploring the rich culture of the map-collecting community as well as the psychological underpinnings of why Smiley did what he did, Blanding learned that not surprisingly, money was indeed the motive.
But the full story was deeper and far more interesting.
“Smiley had such a complex psychology, he was a mess of contradictions,” Blanding said.
On one hand, he was able to enter into the field of map dealers, and “based on the relationships he made with other people, became really good at his work” Blanding explained.
The image he created to outsiders was one of a worldly jet-setter, regularly hob-knobbing with artsy intellectuals and academics.
On the other hand, he was a terrible businessman, continuously chasing maps he couldn’t afford.
To magnify the situation, Smiley became involved in a second project that also drained his bank account: the reinvention of a small town, complete with general store and small restaurants, eventually leading to a disastrous feud with the people who lived there.
“Rather than admit to himself that he failed, Smiley turned to theft in order to continue pursuing them,” Blanding explained. “It’s a very human, very relatable story. We all to a certain extent create an image of ourselves that we try to live up to.”
Just as interesting as Miley’s story itself, Blanding said, were the back stories of many of the antique maps with which he connected.
Consider the back story of 17th-century British map maker Sir Robert Dudley, the bastard son of an English lord rumored to be the lover of Queen Elizabeth.
Denied his title and banished from Britain, Dudley left England with his Catholic mistress to pursue a passion for exploration and map making in Tuscany.
He eventually produced the Dell’Arcano del Mare, the first maritime encyclopedia of the entire world and the first to use the Mercator projection, a projection system that allows for lengthy and accurate maritime navigation.
“Dudley was one of the first map-makers to adopt this system, 50 years before his time,” Blanding said. “All of this coming at a time when every young boy’s dream was of becoming an explorer.”
A dashing figure intrigued by the ocean and navigation, Dudley produced his atlas of the world in 1647, a feat which resulted in the restoration of his title and an invitation to return to England. Before he was able to do so, however, Dudley died just two years later and was buried in Florence.
Consider that perhaps 1,000 to 2,000 maps were produced at the time. Consider also that many of these were used and exposed to the wind, the waves, the ocean and, over time, were lost or destroyed.
“Very few original copies remain,” Blanding explained.
“Knowing just how rare it was, Smiley went in one day with a razor blade” effectively removing three pages of the document, Blanding said, and sold them. Two of the three pages were ultimately recovered, Blanding said. “As for that last one, it’s probably hanging on the wall of some collector who never turned it in.”
“What a betrayal,” Blanding said. “You can see how Smiley’s crimes went beyond the monetary value of the items he stole.”
That said, Blanding doesn’t spend a lot of time debating whether justice was served.
“I can see both sides,” Blanding said. “On one hand it’s surprising and disappointing to libraries he stole from that he only spent three years in prison. On the other hand, Smiley cooperated fully with the FBI in helping to recover those maps, many of which probably never had been resurrected without his assistance.”
“For that reason, his sentence was reduced,” Smiley said.
Thus setting a precedent for future thieves of intellectual property.
“I do believe he’s shown a lot of remorse,” Blanding added.
Although he continues to live on Martha’s Vineyard, Smiley now works as a skilled laborer/landscaper for about $12 an hour, Blanding said.
“He can’t even look at maps anymore, it’s too painful for him,” Blanding said. “His stealing days are behind him. Or at least for now.”
Maryanne MacLeod is a freelance writer based in the Detroit area.