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Stealing the maps worth millions: Introducing The Map Thief

We love and care about maps, but some people take things even more seriously. Seriously enough to commit countless crimes, with antiquarian maps fetching hundreds of thousands of pounds. We've been talking to Michael Blanding, the author of The Map Thief, a non-fiction book that follows the crimes of E. Forbes Smiley III. A map thief, in fact...

Ptolemy World Ruderman

Image credit: Michael Blanding and Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc

The story of Forbes Smiley III is a fascinating one, and Michael explains that Smiley admitted to stealing 97 antiquarian maps from libraries around the country. "These maps are prized by collectors for their historical significance," adds Michael, "and can be valued at tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Smiley knew that better than anyone, since he was a dealer in rare maps himself for some 30 years before he was caught stealing them."

The huge value of the maps didn't lead to instant fortune for Smiley though, who found himself digging an increasingly large hole:

"Despite how knowledgeable he was about these rare artefacts, Smiley was, in fact, a terrible businessman, and became increasingly financially overextended and desperate as maps became more and more valuable in the late 1980s and 1990s. Competition increased as other map dealers entered the field, and Smiley found himself unable to compete in an increasingly cutthroat subculture. Finally, one day, he turned to crime, ripping or cutting these antique maps out of books hundreds of years old and betraying the libraries that trusted him for years."

"Finally," Michael explains, "Smiley was caught in June 2005, when he dropped an X-acto knife blade on the floor of the Beinecke library at Yale University. He eventually admitted to stealing 97 maps from six institutions - Harvard, Yale, New York Public Library, Boston Public Library, the Newberry Library in Chicago and the British Library in London." That's just the tip of the iceberg though, and Michael adds: "In my research, I found evidence of a dozen other maps that Smiley also stole, and some of the libraries still accuse him of stealing more than a hundred more."

Worth more than you’d think…

De Jode - World Beinecke (Web)

Image credit: Michael Blanding and Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Highlighting the incredible amounts that antiquarian maps can sell for, Michael explains: “The most valuable [map that Smiley stole] is a map of Boston from 1743 that is the first city plan in America, which Smiley sold for $185,000. Another really valuable one is a map of the world made by Flemish cartographer Gerard de Jode in 1578, which Smiley stole on the day he was arrested and actually ripped a hole in the middle of it as he took it. As beautiful as it is, it did not sell very well during de Jode's lifetime, making it very rare today. It's worth about $125,000.”

“Another incredibly valuable one is a map of New France,” Michael continues, “made by explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1613. It is one of the very first maps of the Canadian maritimes and New England coastline and is included in a book that Champlain wrote about his discoveries, and very few copies still exist. One notable feature of the map is that it appears Champlain drew a self-portrait of himself inside a sun included on the map. It's worth well over $100,000 - and recently sold at auction for a half a million!”

There are a number of reasons for antiquarian maps being so valued, and Michael adds:
“Maps are unique for being both incredibly beautiful works of art, as well as practical tools used to navigate our world. I think the main appeal for collectors lies in the historical significance and the stories that these antique maps tell. The way maps are drawn or the details that are included in them can give us important information about how people viewed the world at that time.”

John Seller - New England - Yale (Web)

Image credit: Michael Blanding and Yale University Library

“And they also often have an agenda beyond just describing a geography, claiming a land for a particular country or pushing forward some claim to power over another country. It's fascinating to hold these objects and think about how they were used by a captain on a sailing ship to navigate at sea, or by scholars or lords to negotiate treaties or better understand their world.”

A cutthroat, competitive world

That kind of money turns the map business from something that at first appears gentile, into something a whole lot more serious. “I learned that the world of map collecting and map dealing is much more competitive and cutthroat than one might imagine,” says Michael. “Just based on the subject matter, you might think of it as a rarefied profession, inhabited by serious, bookish types, but there is a lot of money to be made in buying and selling these rare artefacts, which causes dealers and collectors to compete aggressively against each other for the best maps.”

“That competition also engenders a fair amount of secrecy, since dealers don't want to let other dealers or collectors to know what they are selling. Smiley was able to exploit that secrecy to sell extremely rare stolen maps to a number of dealers, who didn't realise he was also selling equally rare maps to their competitors.”

John Smith - New England (Web)

Image credit: Michael Blanding and Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

“I fell in love with so many of the maps I researched,” adds Michael. “One of my favourites is a map of New England by John Smith from 1616. Though Smith is better known as one of the founders of the Virginia Colony, he explored the area and actually came up with the name New England. He also appealed to the crown prince of England, Prince Charles, to rename all of the native American settlements with names of English towns, creating this totally fictitious geography in order to drum up interest in colonisation. Even though he was unsuccessful in colonising the area himself, the Pilgrims took the name of one of the settlements, Plimouth, for their own colony!”

“This was also the first atlas to be produced on a Mercator projection, which was not used consistently by other mapmakers for another 50 years, and it is a beautiful work of art. It includes lovely Italian calligraphy and other flourishes that makes it a joy to look at.”

Why you should read The Map Thief

It’s easy to see that The Map Thief is a fascinating insight into the world of antiquarian maps, in addition to telling the story of Smiley. Michael concludes: “I spent three years writing and researching the book in order to become as much of an expert I can on these historical artefacts. Everything I wrote in the book is the truth to the best of my ability to convey it, including the details of the historic maps, as well as the details of Smiley's crimes.” And it’s that attention to detail that makes The Map Thief well worth a look.

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