The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

18693681Nonfiction — print. Gotham, 2014. 300 pgs. Library copy.

Subtitled “The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps”, Blanding’s book utilizes one map dealer to explore the complex world of rare-map dealing and collecting where maps went from practical instruments to quirky heirlooms to highly coveted objects that are traded – and stolen – like prized art. E. Forbes Smiley was once considered a respectable antiquarian map dealer until he was caught cutting rare maps out of books in the Yale University library.

This event opens up an investigation that revealed about two hundred maps worth millions of dollars missing from libraries around New England and in London. Although Smiley swears he has admitted to all of the maps he stole, libraries claim he stole hundreds more and the lack of a clear database or identifying methodology makes it difficult to prove otherwise.

Blanding’s book expanded beyond the world of true crime to examine how maps move from the world of use – that is, from the hands of surveyors, developers, and the military – to the world of art and collectors. He provides an interesting crash course in the history of cartography and some of the more famous maps in collector circles. Some maps like those labeling America as America for the first time are considered to be cultural artifacts and are held by libraries, whose security is much more relax than museums, while others are valued for their beauty or because they help complete the theme to a collection. One of the men whose collections were built by Forbes collected maps focused on New England while another cared only for maps of Virginia. (The collection focused on New England can be seen at the Boston Public Library and the Boston Harbor Hotel.)

But the more fascinating aspect of this book, of course, is what exactly drove a respected map dealer at the height of his profession to steal from the librarians who came to know him over the years and deface the artifacts he claimed to love. Blanding offers two explanations: (1) economic motivation driven by custom home on Martha’s Vineyard and a failed experiment to recreate a quaint New England town in his image and (2) a desire to find a rarer map than the next dealer.

These explanations are supported by post-arrest interviews with Smiley and interviews with his friends and family, and Blanding creates an exemplary piece of narrative nonfiction exploring a little known field. Certainly makes me want to travel around to the libraries in New England who were victims of Forbes’ crimes to see the maps he stole.

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