There’s nothing of Ocean’s Eleven (or Twelve or Thirteen) in Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief : The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps. In fact, most of the theft is low-tech and simple. Razor blades and wet string are used to liberate maps from rare book rooms and (for one thief) abandoned dumbwaiters become access points for after hours pilfering. The only thing standing between the map thief and a payday is an ever-vigilant librarian.
The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by Michael Blanding
Gotham Books, 2014
320 pages (Hardcover)
Source: Brilliant Books
The story of one such map thief, E. Forbes Smiley III, is the focus of Blanding’s book. Smiley was not born into wealth or the product of an ivy league education, but the confidence he resonated, his knowledge of history, his tweed jacket, and his phone calls from “the Vineyard” to clients helped to convince others he was.
To say that Smiley is an odd man is an understatement. He set out to buy up and revive an old, small town in Maine because he had “dreamed of buying a New England village with his college friends,” but his plans were hampered by his less than stellar business skills and ongoing legal issues with the town’s residents.
With his finances in jeopardy, he stole his first map and then dozens followed. His ultimate demise we discover from the start. Smiley’s bravado outpaced his acquisitions and sales, leaving him struggling to make ends meet and pushing him to take risks in his work as a map dealer: like lifting rare maps from Yale’s Beinecke. (Having used the Beinecke, I was surprised he even tried.) But in the end, it’s the little things (like a dropped X-Acto blade) that gets you.
Smiley was a hustler with little of reality’s grip to keep him in check. Turning thief and getting caught was his past demanding a pay day for his misdeeds.
We get far more than just Smiley’s story between the covers of The Map Thief. We are introduced to the world of map dealers attempting to out-compete each other, score the next rare find, and steal clients. Blanding also delves into the maps themselves, providing glossy prints and historical context—their value is found in not only the art but also their circumstances. There is also a lengthy appendix of the maps Smiley stole, or at least those he admitted to stealing, and the fantastic irony of including maps of places central to Smiley’s story—a nice meta touch to the book.
My first (and only so far) foray into map-making was on a smaller scale—deciding what maps to create and what locations to include on small maps for each of the five-volumes of my YA series on the history of Christianity. The publisher had an artist for the maps, but Mindy (my co-author for that series and this blog) and I had to figure out not only what locations to include, but how it communicated our message at the time.
Maps send important messages and reveal a great deal about the world, not only for the utilitarian purposes of getting to our destination, but also because they reveal something about ethnic rivalries, border disputes, and bias. They can make or break property claims or cultural narratives.
The interior of the “Marble Cube,” Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.
Google, for example, was recently forced by international laws to change how Google Maps draws international borders if viewed from within the country. Depending on which country you are in, the territorial lines may be drawn differently online. This puts Google in the middle of international border disputes. By using his clout to excise maps from rare books or collections entrusted to the protection of institutions, Smiley was giving the finger to this sort of cultural history.
While the story of Smiley is not really a traditional gripping suspense, there is a deep impending sense of train-wreck. Smiley is an intriguing figure whose legacy is one of leaving dealers and collectors financially upturned and libraries in the position of rethinking how they protect collections and how they could prove what belonged to them originally. Many thought—and rightfully so—that he got off easy. But one thing is certain, the past has a way of catching up with you.