Forbes Smiley’s knack for stealing and selling valued maps is sketched in detail by Michael Blanding in his latest book The Map Thief.

When E. Forbes Smiley III, one of New York’s top dealers in rare maps, walked into Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library on June 8, 2005, no one suspected he was there to steal some of their most valued maps. Smiley wasn’t feeling well that morning and when he pulled out his handkerchief to cough into, he didn’t notice that the X-Acto knife he had brought along to razor out the maps had slipped out and was now lying on the floor. A little later he stepped out for a coffee, pondering his plans. The London Map Fair was about to begin and ill as he was, he needed to be there: map collectors from all over gather there to buy and sell and trade in antiquarian maps.

While he had been away, the atmosphere at the library had suddenly altered: one of the librarians had discovered the X-Acto knife and now the library had summoned a police detective to watch Smiley on his return. Watching the map dealer on the security camera, the detective noticed Smiley fidgeting with his blazer pocket. Why was he even wearing a jacket on this warm summer morning? Smiley was oblivious to all this, and simply kept requesting more antiquarian books that had valuable maps bound or inserted in them. When he finally left the library, the detective let him walk a little distance before he asked to look inside the briefcase. It contained several maps. “I’m a collector,” Smiley explained. “These maps are mine.”

But the librarians were unable to say with certainty if these maps came from their collection. It was only when the detective asked him to empty his blazer pocket that they found the tiny map identified at once by the staff: a map from a 1631 book with the only known portrait of explorer John Smith who had been the first to depict the coastline of New England with some accuracy. Rarely does this map surface in the market, and when it does it can sell for anything from $50,000 to $100,000. When Smiley had examined the book earlier that morning, he had noticed the tiny map had already come loose from the book, its 400-year-old glue having given way. And when he felt sure no one was watching, he had quickly slipped the map into his blazer pocket.

Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief (Gotham Books, May 2014) tells the full story of Forbes Smiley’s exploits, introducing us to the subculture of rare map dealers and collectors. He also lays out for us cartographic stories of these map makers and explorers with notes on the origins of the first maps of the New World. When Smiley finally confessed, it was to stealing 97 rare maps, amounting to $3 million. This, however, as Blanding points out, is not the whole story: several libraries are still missing some 250 maps. Was Smiley not telling the court everything or was this the work of other rare map thieves?

Forbes Smiley’s passion for maps had enabled him to become an expert; being able to recognise different versions of the same map from subtle variations had been his way of getting some edge in the field. Even though he had made a lot of money, and had become a successful (though controversial) antiquarian dealer, he had also spent lavishly, overextending himself, and was now in a financial hole. He told Blanding that it was probably in 2002 that he began stealing maps, and found he could not stop because of a desperate need for funds to pay for his luxury home in Martha’s Vineyard.

How could this have happened? How is it that dealers and collectors failed to recognise stolen material? Blanding says that the world of rare map dealing and collecting is not like the art world where there are no copies or few copies; in the map world copies of the same rare maps are plenty, with tiny variations making it difficult to establish provenance. People can bring in a rare map to a dealer or collector and claim that it belonged to their grandfather or that it had been in their family for generations.

Map collectors, at least a good majority of them, don’t want to ask too many questions about where a rare map came from if they were getting it for something lower than the market price, or if the competition to possess a rare map is intense and this suspicious copy becomes their only chance to own one. Another questionable tradition (the ethics of which is still debated) in the antiquarian market is breaking up an atlas (or a rare book) and selling individual maps to make more money.

The Map Thief is a diverting tale when it deals with Forbes Smiley and the map dealer’s rarefied world, but when it backgrounds, and in some detail too, the cartographic history of maps dealing in Americana it is not as (the publisher’s rather blurby title claims) gripping: not every reader wants to know so much about rare American maps and the collectors who obsessively pursue them.