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On the trail of Martha’s Vineyard’s rare map thief

E. Forbes Smiley III spent years spiriting some $3 million worth of rare maps out of some of the world’s most prestigious libraries. And he almost got away with it.

At Yale, Smiley pocketed this map of John Smith’s New England from a 1631 book.

From Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

At Yale, Smiley pocketed this map of John Smith’s New England from a 1631 book.

E. FORBES SMILEY III couldn’t stop coughing. No matter how much he tried to suppress it, the tickle in the back of his throat kept breaking out into a hacking cough, drawing glances from the patrons sitting around him. The glass fishbowl of a reading room at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University was quiet except for the low hum of the air conditioning and the clicking of fingers on keyboards, making Smiley painfully aware of the noise he was creating. At one point, he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. As he did, an X-Acto blade wrapped inside fell softly onto the carpeted floor. He folded the cloth and put it back in his pocket, oblivious to what had just happened.

Smiley was in the Beinecke on the morning of June 8, 2005, to study some rare atlases in preparation for the London Map Fair, an annual gathering of hundreds of map collectors, who come to buy, sell, and trade their antiquarian wares. Smiley was one of the top dealers in the field, and the 49-year-old looked the part, too, with graying hair swept back over his ears and a long, oval face ending in a patrician chin. A pair of silver wire-framed glasses perched on his nose, he often wore tweed or navy blue blazers. All this, along with his Yankee-sounding name, usually caused people to assume he was from “old money,” an impression he did nothing to correct.

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But the truth was Smiley hoped to use the London event to climb out of the financial hole into which he’d recently sunk. He was overextended by several hundred thousand dollars and hemorrhaging money on a new home on Martha’s Vineyard as well as other expenses. As gifted as Smiley was at remembering details about maps, he was abysmal at managing the details of the business through which he earned his livelihood.

E. Forbes Smiley III leaving federal court in 2006.

Bob Child/AP

E. Forbes Smiley III leaving federal court in 2006.

Smiley was well known in map circles, but on this morning, none of the librarians at the Beinecke’s public services desk recognized him. Had they, they would have been shocked at his transformation. In addition to the cough that had developed overnight, he was suffering a splitting headache; he had been drinking a lot these days — it was the only thing that took his thoughts away from the problems that multiplied in his mind whenever he was sober.

Before noon, as Smiley sat pondering his predicament over lunch at a coffee shop, the situation in the Beinecke changed radically. Smiley may have missed the X-Acto blade that fell from his pocket, but a librarian named Naomi Saito had not. Few objects could be more disturbing to someone who works in a building full of rare treasures than a tool that can separate the pages of a book from the binding.

Saito picked up the blade in a tissue and showed her supervisor, Ellen Cordes, what she’d found. Cordes scanned through several dozen reader cards and immediately focused on Smiley, who had by now returned to examine more books. Looking up Smiley’s website and seeing he was a dealer of rare maps made Cordes more nervous. She called over to Sterling Memorial Library, which houses Yale’s main map collection, and wasn’t reassured: Smiley had recently looked at some folders later found to be missing several maps, but the matter had been dropped for lack of proof. Cordes contacted the Beinecke’s head of security.

At his table, Smiley continued his research, oblivious to the attention he’d attracted. He carefully turned the water-stained frontispiece of a 1631 book he’d requested to reveal a map folded into a rectangle about 6 inches long by 8 inches wide. He spread it out on the table, examining the copper-engraved image he practically knew by heart. Unusual for maps of this period — or any period — a portrait of the map maker fills the upper left-hand corner of the page. It is the only known portrait of the explorer John Smith, drawn when the captain was 36. Despite a few notable errors, the map Smith drew of the area he named “New England” is regarded as the first accurate depiction of the region’s coastline.

Smiley was one of the few people in the world who knew just how rare this map was. Copies came up at auction only once or twice a generation, fetching anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. With that thought in mind, Smiley refolded the page down into its original rectangle. The map was already free in the book, its nearly 400-year-old glue long since having given way and separated from the binding. Smiley waited until he thought no one was looking and then quickly slipped the map into the pocket of his blazer.

At the circulation desk a dozen yards away, the Beinecke’s head of security, Ralph Mannarino, was watching Smiley for signs of suspicious behavior. Mannarino noticed that Smiley seemed to be fidgeting with something inside his blazer pocket. That he was even wearing a jacket on such a warm day seemed strange; Mannarino called Yale police for backup. Around 3 o’clock, Detective Martin Buonfiglio, a tall plainclothes officer, followed Smiley out the Beinecke’s front door.

Oblivious to the detective on his tail, Smiley walked several blocks down the street to his next destination, the Yale Center for British Art. Inside, he handed over his briefcase at the coat check and began walking toward the elevator. That was when he heard a voice behind him asking him to stop.

“Hi, I work for Yale,” Buonfiglio said. “Were you just over at the Beinecke?”

“Yes,” Smiley said quickly. “I’m a researcher. I go there a lot.”

“Is this yours, by any chance?” Buonfiglio asked, unwrapping the X-Acto blade from the tissue.

“Yes, it is. I must have dropped it,” Smiley replied, adding a bit nonsensically, “I have a cold.”

“Well, folks over there think you might have taken something by mistake,” Buonfiglio said. “Do you mind if I take a look at your briefcase?”

NO PROFILE EXISTS FOR those who steal maps, and no library is immune from theft. A common myth about stealing paintings is that they are taken on behalf of eccentric billionaires, who display them privately — an urban legend first popularized by the James Bond film Dr. No. (In one scene, Bond passes a recently stolen portrait by Goya in the titular villain’s underground lair and shrugs, saying, “So that’s where that went.”) In reality, most art thieves steal with only a vague idea of where they’ll sell their paintings and are unable to fence them. That’s why many art thieves are either caught within days of their crimes or else their stolen artworks go underground for decades.

Maps are different. No one can know with absolute certainty how many copies of a particular map have survived over the centuries. And unlike art, maps generally aren’t hung in galleries or museums, off-limits to close inspection. They are mostly kept in libraries, where they are meant to be handled. “It’s the same old story: A person recognizes libraries have the best material and don’t have the money to protect these things,” says Travis McDade, a University of Illinois librarian and lawyer who has written extensively about map theft. “So people cut out two or three maps and go to a dealer [and] say my uncle died or my grandfather died, are they worth anything?”

This stolen 16th-century map of the world might have fetched $125,000.

From Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

This stolen 16th-century map of the world might have fetched $125,000.

For years, Smiley had been one of those dealers, succeeding in rising to the highest levels of the New York map trade. When people thought of him, a few words inevitably sprang to mind: gregarious, jolly, larger than life. He spoke with the resonance of an Italian tenor mangled by a nasally WASPish affectation, and projected the air of a jet-setter. When he reached out by phone, he made sure to announce that he was calling “from the Vineyard.” His upper-crust pretenses, however, were tempered by a charming self-deprecation. He’d ingratiated himself with many a librarian by inquiring after her spouse or children and reciprocated with entertaining stories of travels around the world.

The truth is that even as Smiley was working hard to build collections for clients, he was finding it difficult to keep up with a changing marketplace. As the prices of maps began to soar in the 1990s, new dealers entered the business, competing with established players to find a small number of rare items for a limited number of high-end patrons. The obsession with “winning” often caused Smiley to overextend himself.

In court records, Smiley later claimed his thefts started in 2002 at Yale’s Sterling Library. By 2003, his list of targets had expanded to include the Boston Public Library. The BPL didn’t have a dedicated map room, or even a map curator to look after its collection. Maps were part of the rare books and manuscript department, housed in a little-visited room on the library’s third floor. There, Smiley would fill out call slip after call slip. He was so well known by staff that he barely included his name and address, writing only “SMILEY MA”.

The next year, the library officially launched the new Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, named for one of Smiley’s clients, for whom he’d helped build the most extensive collection of maps of Boston and New England ever assembled. When the center’s curator, Ron Grim, first arrived in Boston, he began going through the shelves to familiarize himself with the collection and saw Smiley’s name come up again and again on call slips. Smiley knows this collection better than I do, he thought. Grim had no idea that Smiley had been using his knowledge to systematically dismantle it.

Among the rarest of all the treasures in the new map center were several copies of The American Pilot, a collection of sea charts. Only 10 copies of The American Pilot were known to have survived, and Boston had four of them — one from 1794, two from 1798, and one from 1816. Smiley examined the last copy multiple times, including in December 2004 and January 2005. On one of those occasions, he tore out a chart of Florida and the Bahamas. It would prove easy to sell.

On another occasion, Smiley examined the BPL’s copy of a 1646 sea atlas called the Dell’Arcano del Mare, written by Robert Dudley, an English lord exiled in Italy. Dudley gave his manuscripts to a young Florentine engraver, who spent 12 years and used 5,000 pounds of copper to reproduce them. At the library one day, Smiley checked out the 2-foot-high tome and flipped through the feather-light pages until he came to the maps of the Americas. Dudley had produced several smaller-scale charts of the East Coast: one of New England and the New Netherlands, one of Chesapeake Bay, and one of southern Virginia. Smiley slipped a razor down the length of the binding, the blade curving slightly along the grain of the paper as it sliced through all three sheets at once.

NO MATTER HOW MUCH Smiley stole, he never seemed to have enough to cover his debts or alleviate his stress. Years later, he would sit with me at a picnic table in Martha’s Vineyard and try to explain his actions. Once he started stealing, he said, he couldn’t see any other way out of his predicament. “Why did I steal? I stole for the money. You could write that in one sentence. The question I have to ask myself is, why did I think I needed the money so much?” Stealing became his way of trying to control an increasingly unmanageable life. “I never took pleasure in stealing,” he said. “I stole because I was trying to relieve myself from this feeling of desperation, and that’s a word I never understood until it happened to me.”

When Smiley arrived at Yale’s Beinecke on June 8, 2005, he was in a state of panic. He had recently paid out more than $500,000 on a new house on Martha’s Vineyard, and he owed at least $200,000 more. To make a real dent in his debts, he’d need something truly rare. Smiley knew the library also owned a pristine world map from a 1578 book called Speculum Orbis Terrarum by Flemish map maker Gerard de Jode and that it could fetch as much as $125,000. On that spring day, Smiley would ask the Yale librarians to bring him the de Jode book, too.

Of course, when Smiley finally left the Beinecke that afternoon, he didn’t leave alone. Yale detective Marty Buonfiglio was on his tail — within a few hours, it was all over. Library staff identified the John Smith map, which was still in his pocket, and later examined security footage to spot him taking the de Jode map. The New Haven police would lead him off in handcuffs. But as the librarians looked through Smiley’s briefcase, they realized it contained more maps than they could identify as their own. Of the eight inside, only four came from books Smiley had viewed that day. The fact led to obvious questions: Where had the others come from? Had they been stolen, too?

Buonfiglio called the FBI, which sent out an alert to rare-book librarians around the country. One by one, they began to respond with panicked reports of maps missing from books in their collections. Eventually the investigation would lead to the discovery of dozens of maps that Smiley had stolen from six institutions, including the Boston Public Library, Harvard’s Houghton Library, and the British Library in London.

In time, Smiley admitted taking 97 maps, worth more than $3 million in all. However, the libraries are missing many more. Which brings up another question: Where are they? Or more to the point, who has them? “There are collectors out there who think that there is no better protector of items than themselves,” says Bob Goldman, a lawyer who represented the British Library. “It is such a passion they come to believe that nobody appreciates them and nobody is in a better position to possess or protect them than they are.”

It’s the Dr. No theory of art theft — only with maps, it could actually be true. Unlike a one-of-a-kind work of art, a rare map could be displayed openly by its owner without anyone knowing it was stolen. David Cobb, former curator of the Harvard Map Collection, will never forget a conference he attended in Guatemala a few years after Smiley’s thefts. Giving a talk about security to a few dozen map collectors, he asked, “Do any of you think you have stolen maps in your collection?” None of them raised their hands.

Next Cobb asked, “Would any of you refuse to purchase a stolen map if you knew it was stolen?” Again, none of them raised their hands.

Adapted from The Map Thief by Michael Blanding, to be published by Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC. Copyright © 2014 by Blanding Enterprises LLC.

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Michael Blanding is a freelance writer based in Brookline. The Map Thief goes on sale May 29. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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