At BPL, sharp eye steers missing map home
A rare map advertised in a New York antiques dealer’s summer catalog was created by explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1612 and provided a description of the New England coast and what would later become Canada.
But the map had defects. And it was those flaws — slight tears where it had once been folded and a tiny mark where a hole had been repaired — that caught the attention of the Boston Public Library’s eagle-eyed map curator, Ronald Grim.
“I was fairly certain it was ours,” said Grim, who immediately suspected the Carte Geographique de la Nouvelle France was one of dozens of rare maps that had been stolen from the Boston Public Library by notorious thief E. Forbes Smiley more than a decade ago.
The distinctive markings on the map being offered for sale by Cohen & Taliaferro for $285,000 matched those on a digital image made from a negative the library kept after photographing the map in 1992 before it disappeared, according to Grim.
In August, Grim traveled to New York and presented the digital image to the dealer, hoping to persuade him to return the map.
“I had to contain myself because I knew the dealer didn’t want that to be the truth,” said Grim, who returned to Boston empty-handed.
It would take several months of legal wrangling and an evaluation by an independent expert to resolve the matter. The dealer quietly returned the map to the library just before Thanksgiving.
On Friday, the Champlain map will be placed on display at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the library’s central branch in Copley Square, where it will remain through February.
“We were able to do this as colleagues within this industry as a whole,” said David Leonard, the Boston Public Library’s interim president, crediting the New York dealer with “doing the right thing” once the library proved ownership.
In announcing the recovery of the Champlain map, the Boston Public Library did not identify the New York dealer by name — though the company’s catalog advertising the sale of the Champlain map was posted on its website. Library officials said the dealer was selling the map for an unidentified collector. Cohen & Taliaferro did not respond to e-mails or telephone calls seeking comment.
Even as the library celebrates the return of one of its prized possessions, it is still missing 34 maps. And the recovery of the Champlain map has renewed questions about whether Smiley, a map dealer with a home on Martha’s Vineyard, stole more maps than he admitted to, and whether enough is being done to recover them.
The FBI and the US attorney’s office in Connecticut closed the case against Smiley after he pleaded guilty to theft in 2006 and was sentenced to three years in prison. As part of a plea agreement, Smiley confessed to stealing 97 rare maps worth an estimated $3 million from libraries in five cities, including Boston, New York, and London. He helped return many of the maps to the libraries. Thirty-four maps were ultimately returned to the Boston Public Library as a result of the investigation. However, some of the libraries discovered they were missing more maps than Smiley accounted for and accused him of failing to admit to all of his misdeeds.
Grim, who worked at the Library of Congress before starting at the Boston Public Library in 2005, inventoried the Boston Public Library’s massive map collection and discovered that 69 rare maps were missing. Smiley confessed to stealing only 34 of them. “In the overwhelming majority, [Smiley] was the only person to look at them,” Grim said.
Smiley did not confess to stealing the Champlain map, yet library records indicate he was the last person to view it, on Jan. 2, 2003, before it disappeared, according to Grim. It was one of two maps torn from a book and the other one remains missing.
Efforts by the Globe to reach Smiley for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
Cohen & Taliaferro was one of a handful of dealers who sold some of Smiley’s stolen maps and suffered significant losses when the federal case unfolded. The dealers repaid their customers, who had purchased the stolen maps and were required to return them to the libraries. Smiley was ordered to make restitution to the dealers, including $938,400 to Cohen & Taliaferro and a company it purchased.
Michael Blanding, author of, “The Map Thief,” a book about Smiley published last year, said that in some cases dealers were not required to return maps because Smiley didn’t confess to stealing them and the libraries could not prove ownership. In some cases, many copies of the same map exist.
As for the Champlain map that was recently recovered, Blanding said the dealer should have done more checking to establish provenance because it was well known that a copy of that map had been stolen from the Boston Public Library.
“It certainly raises questions again about just how forthcoming Smiley was in admitting to all the maps he stole and whether there are other maps that could come to light in coming years,” Blanding said. “It really points to the responsibility of dealers in determining provenance.”
Scott Gerson, the New York-based conservation expert who determined that the Champlain map belonged to the Boston Public Library, said the photograph the library took of the map in 1992 was “very key with being able to make that identification.”
The Boston Public Library has a digital image of only one of the remaining 34 maps that are missing, but in recent years has digitized more than 8,000 of its rare maps as part of a project aimed at digitizing about 20,000 maps, according to officials.