Map Dealer Faces Theft Charges

When you read The Island of Lost Maps, a book about map theft by Miles Harvey, you get the clear impression that neither map librarians nor map dealers were comfortable admitting that map thieves existed in their midst — that they were cutting maps out of rare books in their libraries; that they were dealing in stolen property — to the point where some libraries wouldn’t even accept that maps had in fact been stolen from them.

The book’s focus, Gilbert Bland, was a marginal figure who seemed to come from nowhere. It’s a little different this time. According to the Hartford Courant, an established map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley III, has been charged with stealing maps from Yale University; three other libraries confirm that maps have gone missing after a visit by Smiley, and still others are checking their collections.

It’s especially troubling because Smiley was apparently well-integrated in map collecting circles — he helped amass what would later become the Slaughter Collection at the NYPL (see previous entry). The comfortable idea that map thieves were outsiders may well have been burst. From the article:

Although thefts of rare maps are not uncommon, librarians said Smiley’s case was unique — and especially unsettling — because of the position of trust he had achieved within the close-knit world of map collectors.
“In the past, the people who’ve stolen maps have been mainly outsiders - not properly professional,” [Peter Barber, head of map collections for the British Library,] said. “Forbes Smiley is disturbing because he is a member of the inner circle.”

In other words — to quote Sir Humphrey in Yes, Prime Minister — he was one of us. It’s important to maintain the presumption of innocence until proved guilty; having said that, if this is in fact true, this case does suggest that the dark underbelly of map collecting isn’t nearly so self-contained.

Essential surfing: Map History/History of Cartography’s Thefts of Early Maps and Books section, with lots of resources and links about the problem. The MapHist list was on top of this story early (serves me right for forgetting to subscribe).

Earlier coverage: Bangor Daily News, July 22; Martha’s Vinyard Times, July 14.

See previous entry: Map Thief Jailed.