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Michael Blanding to Speak about ‘The Map Thief’ at Newberry Library, Part I

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Michael Blanding will speak about his new book The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps, published by Gotham Books in June of 2014, at The Newberry Library on Saturday, September 27, 2014. The event will last from 1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.

The map thief in question is Edward Forbes Smiley III, who pled guilty in federal court to stealing ninety-seven maps worth a total of $3,000,000. He cut most if not all of these maps from antiquarian books in the collections of some of the world’s greatest research libraries.

This will be of more than academic interest to employees and patrons of The Newberry Library, which boasts a collection of approximately 500,000 maps. Two of the ninety-seven maps E. Forbes Smiley pilfered were from The Newberry Library, as Quinn Ford pointed out in an article posted on Monday, August 18, 2014 (“How One Man Rippsed Off Millions in Rare Maps, Including in Chicago”). Smiley’s other victims were the New York Public Library; the Boston Public Library; Yale University's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven, Connecticut; Harvard University’s Houghton Library in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and the British Library in London.

Blanding is an investigative journalist who has also written numerous feature articles and travel articles. He has one previous book to his credit: The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink. To help publicize The Map Thief, Blanding posted an article, “The 10 Most Important Maps in U.S. History” on the Web site Mental Floss.

In a press release, dated June 22, 2006, Kevin J. O’Connor, United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut stated he, Kimberly K. Mertz, Special Agent in Charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.), and Michael J. Dearington, State’s Attorney for New Haven, jointly announced that Smiley “pleaded guilty today before United States District Judge Janet Bond Arterton in New Haven to a federal charge of theft of major artwork. In pleading guilty, SMILEY has also admitted to the theft of an additional 96 rare maps that he removed from libraries and other institutions around the country and the United Kingdom, and then sold to private dealers or collectors. Most of these maps have since been recovered.”

In June of 2006, Associated Press Writer John Christoffersen reported, “Smiley was arrested a year ago after a librarian at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library found a razor blade on the floor. Police confronted Smiley, who had been reviewing rare books, and found seven maps worth nearly $900,000 in his briefcase and pockets, according to a police report.”

Smiley was born on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts and attended Princeton Theological Seminary. One might guess that the rising value of antiquarian maps at auction in the 1990s would cause Smiley to get richer, but it brought increased competition. Unwilling to curtail his high-flying lifestyle, he turned to crime.

In Ford’s account, “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.”

Newberry staff only realized The Newberry Library had been victimized by Smiley in the wake of his arrest. A perusal of the records showed he had visited The Newberry Library twice and read four books. An inspection of those four books revealed two of them were missing maps.

The F.B.I. stated, “Smiley was able to lead us to most of the dealers and collectors who originally purchased them. But returning the maps to their libraries and the original books they were stolen from proved much more difficult.”

“These maps aren’t vehicles with identification numbers stamped on them,” said F.B.I. Special Agent Stephen J. Kelleher, who led the F.B.I.’s investigation out of the F.B.I.’s New Haven office. “And in most cases, they were trimmed so they didn’t even look like they came from books.”

The F.B.I. stated, “Complicating the issue was the fact that some of the maps had different titles—many in Latin—and could have come from several known copies of the same book.”

As Smiley told us the libraries he targeted, we called them to see if the maps belonged to their collections. Many libraries weren’t even aware they were missing any items since they didn’t inventory their books frequently. The libraries have since improved their security and tracking.

To help confirm the identity of the recovered maps, we ended up relying on map experts, dealers, and even the collectors who bought the stolen goods. Some maps were more easily identified because the books had been damaged by worms, leaving holes 'tantamount to fingerprints,' Kelleher said.

Success! After much painstaking work, we’ve recovered 86 of the maps. We couldn’t have done it, though, without the help of our law enforcement partners in the case: the Boston Police Department, Yale and Harvard university police departments, the New York Public Library Security Division, and Scotland Yard.

In June of 2006, Smiley faced up to eleven years in prison: six years in federal prison and five years in state prison. In addition to having to serve a federal prison sentence, Smiley also had to pay restitution.

Christofferson noted, “The restitution amount has not yet been determined, but he does face a fine of up to $1.6 million for the federal charge, prosecutors said.” To pay restitution, he planned to sell his homes on Martha’s Vineyard and in Maine.

With Smiley's help, most of the maps have been recovered from dealers and galleries, a process U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Connor compared to a treasure hunt. Prosecutors said six maps have not been returned by those who have them and five others are lost.

One of the Newberry’s two purloined maps has never been recovered, as Ford mentioned. The missing Newberry map depicted South Carolina and was cut from a book published in 1695.

Ford cites Blanding in stating the one that was recovered “was ‘a bad copy’ of John Smith's map of Virginia by Englishman Ralph Hall, decorated with animals and sea monsters.” Yale University posted a chart listing maps identified as missing from the Sterling Memorial Library as of August 13, 2007.

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