When a librarian at Yale noticed the X-acto knife blade laying on the floor in 2005, the peculiar criminal career of Edward Forbes Smiley III—perhaps the world’s most prolific thief of antique maps—met its doom.
The investigation into the scope and motives of this eccentric rogue’s crimes, however, was only beginning. The Map Thief, journalist Michael Blanding’s new book about the Smiley case, unfolds as a real-life thriller about this map-dealer turned map-stealer.
But if you come for the detective story, you’ll stay for the novel-worthy character of Smiley. Elusive and evasive, the crook is by turns scheming and tragic, greedy and romantic. He proves perverse enough to join a librarian friend at an exhibit, mutually admiring a map he himself stole from her own collection. Yet he also chose to pour most of his ill-gotten gains into a quixotic attempt to preserve a tiny New England fishing village.
Even Blanding, who conducted the only in-depth interviews with Smiley, found it impossible to pin down many absolute truths, the author told Paste in a recent interview.
“There’s a dichotomy at the center of his character,” Blanding says, adding that his own feelings about Smiley wavered. “It changed day by day. I’d be very sympathetic one day, other days thinking he’s just a con artist.”
Despite the aristocratic air of his name, Smiley grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in middle-class suburbs of New Hampshire. But he was always an intelligent charmer, bedazzling friends with such fantasies as creating a utopian town he would dub “Small Hope.” When he blundered into the field of ancient maps—improbably, at a Manhattan department store that sold them—such dreams seemed to dovetail with cartography’s obsession with miniaturized worlds.
Smiley soon became a self-taught map expert. By the early 2000s, he had played a key role in building map collections at the great public libraries in New York and Boston. At the very same time, he was stealing from them—and many other libraries, too.
After being caught that day at Yale, Smiley cooperated with the FBI and other police agencies, eventually confessing to stealing 97 maps over the previous few years.
But Smiley didn’t tell the whole truth. He committed at least 10 more thefts than he admitted to, and some in the map trade suspect he started stealing much earlier.
“There are allegations that go all the way back to the 1980s,” Blanding says.
Smiley comes across as increasingly devious and always slippery, and as the creep factor rises, it’s easy to wonder whether the man committed different types of crimes as well. Could there have been other burglaries and frauds?
“I don’t think so,” Blanding says after a moment’s consideration. “I think these were crimes of opportunity. This was a world he knew well. I think he was the kind of person … who had a grandiose image of himself as a master map-dealer. He was telling himself this story about the image he created about himself. He almost couldn’t let that image die.”
As Smiley’s financial pressures grew, stealing and selling maps was the one crime he could both easily commit and rationalize.
“I think he really had pulled a fast one on himself,” Blanding says.
Of course, he also pulled a fast one on virtually the entire map-dealing subculture. And he doesn’t seem to be the only one, given its fundamentally shady, mercenary nature. Libraries, dealers, auction houses—no one comes off well in The Map Thief.
“There’s a lot of finger-pointing to go around,” Blanding explains.
Most libraries Smiley victimized had appallingly bad security—sometimes deliberately, as they considered it off-putting to researchers and donors. Some libraries won’t even reclaim maps Smiley stole due to embarrassment. Blanding says most librarians he interviewed are “aware of the awesome responsibility they have,” but map collection security is still a mixed bag at best in the post-Smiley world.
Then there’s the question of where those maps originated from in the first place. Many map collections are essentially ruined libraries; antique maps are torn out of atlases or books and then sold individually for much higher prices than the books themselves would fetch. In one jarring passage, Blanding describes a map-dealer winning an old atlas at an auction, then tearing it apart with his bare hands at the auction house counter.
“It can surprise people how they’re treated so cavalierly,” Blanding says.
Aside from such horror stories, The Map Thief also conveys the allure of antique maps, with their combinations of history and artistry. While Blanding is an investigative journalist whose previous book, The Coke Machine, was a Coca-Cola Company exposé, he’s also a map fan. He grew up loving Dungeons & Dragons and Lord of the Rings, those fantasy fictions built on evocative maps of imaginary worlds. Researching The Map Thief drew him into collecting antique maps himself—even as the hobby wanes in the digital era of Google Maps and GPS.
“Our whole concept of maps has totally changed,” Blanding says. “There’s a kind of narcissism to GPS. It puts you at the center of the universe. The appeal of antiquarian maps is how it unfolds a world of unknowns. It’s very appealing to see ourselves in this world where not everything is known.”
The Map Thief’s appeal lies in a similar tension between known and unknown—between Blanding’s careful mapping of Smiley’s crimes and how their full truth still lurks somewhere in a tantalizing terra incognita.
John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist, editor and critic who regularly contributes to Paste Magazine and Creative Loafing Atlanta. His work has appeared in such publications as the Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald and Details.