New book chronicles the story of Hampshire College graduate E. Forbes Smiley, who stole $2.3 million worth of antique maps

Last modified: Thursday, June 05, 2014
Even on a campus known for its unconventional students, E. Forbes Smiley III stood out at Hampshire College. With a ponytail and pressed khakis, his dress style defied easy categorization, and his friends were impressed with his extensive knowledge of various subjects, his ability to lead a conversation, and his extraordinary woodworking skills.

Many of those friends believed Smiley, Hampshire class of 1974, would go on to do remarkable things. But as journalist Michael Blanding details in his new book, none of them reckoned he would become most widely known for stealing millions of dollars worth of rare and antique maps.

“The Map Thief,” just published by Gotham Books, tells a mysterious and absorbing story of how Smiley, who built a seemingly successful business as a rare map dealer, became swamped with debts and turned to pinching maps from libraries and rare book collections (and then reselling them to unsuspecting buyers) to make ends meet. His arrest, at age 49, in 2005 at Yale University for one of those thefts made national news, and the case eventually extended to Great Britain as well. In all, Smiley stole close to 100 maps valued at some $3 million.

“It’s almost like a Shakespearean tragedy, this talented guy who had so much potential but couldn’t live up to it, and then crashed and burned,” Blanding said in a recent phone interview from his home in Brookline Village. “[Smiley] developed a real expertise in the map world, but he didn’t have good business skills, and I think he became resentful of other dealers — he felt like he hadn’t gotten the credit he deserved.”

In the end, Blanding notes, Smiley, who served about 2½ years in Fort Devens federal prison in Ayer (and six months in a work-release program on Cape Cod), “couldn’t deal with the fact that he’d failed at something he really wanted to be a success at, and rather than face that, he turned to theft.”

In doing that, Blanding writes, Smiley also devastated many of the librarians and map collectors he had come to know and work with over the years, people who had admired him for his knowledge and trusted him with their materials.

Smiley, originally from Bedford, New Hampshire, and now living on Martha’s Vineyard, did not respond to phone and email requests for an interview for this story.

Years ago, however, he made news in the Valley, though in a much more positive story. In 1977, while still a student at Hampshire, he designed and built a large Victorian dollhouse — 2½ feet high and 3 feet by 4½ feet at its base — with miniature parquet floors and other fine details, for the former Northampton toy store, H.L. Childs and Son. The Gazette wrote about the house, which was displayed for years in the store’s front window, in October 1977 and again in September 1983; at the time it was valued at $10,000.

Blanding, who teaches investigative journalism at Brandeis University, said he was unable to determine what ultimately happened to the house after store owner George Childs died in 2012. In any event, he sees Smiley’s work on it as something of a microcosm or symbol for what later happened to him.

“It showcased several things about him,” Blanding said. “There was that incredible attention to detail he had, a certain obsessiveness, and also the idea that he liked building a fictional world. And it showed the amazing skill he had with his hands, which helped him excel as a map dealer and, sadly, as a thief.”

In one of the book’s most striking scenes, Blanding describes watching videotaped footage from a security camera in the Beinecke Library at Yale University from the day in 2005 when Smiley was arrested. Even knowing what he was about to see, Blanding says, he found the speed with which Smiley extracted and folded into his pocket an early map of New England “absolutely amazing.

“It was liking watching a magic trick,” he said. “Still, that was the day when everything changed for him.”

A serious scholar

Blanding, a Williams College graduate, has written for numerous publications including The Nation and The Boston Globe Magazine. He entré into “The Map Thief” came by way of an article he was researching for Boston magazine on a new map center the Boston Public Library opened a few years ago. In an ironic twist, many of the center’s maps had been donated by one of Smiley’s former clients — and Smiley had also stolen from the library’s older collection.

Looking to develop his story further, Blanding, through a few of Smiley’s old Hampshire friends, got in touch with the former dealer, who had completed his prison term and was back on Martha’s Vineyard. Smiley eventually agreed to talk to him — the first time he had discussed the case with anyone in the media — and Blanding came away from the lengthy interview convinced he had enough material to pursue not just a magazine article but a book.

Although Smiley did not agree to further interviews, Blanding talked to myriad other people — antique map dealers and collectors, librarians, law enforcement personnel, historians, Smiley’s friends — to put together a balanced portrait of Smiley. He emerges as a serious scholar of antique maps who taught himself much of the trade, developed a particular expertise about early maps of the North American seaboard, and worked conscientiously for his clients.

He’s also generous with friends and seemingly a devoted husband to his wife, Lisa, and father to his young son, Ned. Moreover, he’s passionate about rare maps: His scholarly interest, particularly in the way maps could be used as a way to examine a region’s history, appealed to certain clients who came to trust his judgment implicitly, Blanding writes.

“He’d find your hot button,” one former customer said of Smiley’s ability to make a sale. He had, as Blanding describes it, “a peculiar mix of New York flash and New England reserve.”

Smiley, who studied religion, classics and history while at Hampshire, landed a sales job in the late 1970s at B. Altman, a venerable New York City department store that had a rare book and map section. From there his fascination with historical maps mushroomed; as he told Blanding, he began “a twenty-year love affair” with the nearby New York Public Library, poring over hundreds of old maps in its collection and developing a close relationship with key staff members.

As the book details, maps became big-ticket items for collectors in the 1980s, when the price of art skyrocketed and well-heeled people who couldn’t afford a Picasso or Matisse turned instead to, say, a rare 17th-century map of New England for $25,000. Blanding, who’s also a map enthusiast, examines the history of mapmaking itself and explains what makes particular ones valuable, either as legitimate works of art or because they help illustrate quirks of history, such as why European mapmakers in the 16th and 17th centuries consistently depicted California as an island.

Growing map business

Smiley left B. Altman by the mid-1980s and set up his map business, which expanded fairly steadily over the next 15 years. But even from the start, he had problems, bouncing checks on occasion and taking on more debt than he could handle, at least in part because he was eager to present himself as highly successful.

That image grated on some fellow dealers.

“He cultivated this air of being a sophisticated jet-setter, this larger-then-life figure,” Blanding said. “But he wasn’t good at managing his business ... plus the whole map business got very cutthroat after awhile, and he couldn’t really compete on that level. He also got involved in this kind of high-end lifestyle, and he couldn’t keep up with that.”

Adding to Smiley’s debts was his venture into the northern Maine village of Sebec in the 1990s, where he and his wife bought an old farmhouse as a summer home; Smiley also bought and restored other buildings in town, with the idea of turning Sebec, a former mill town, into an artists’ colony. But not all the locals were thrilled, and eventually Smiley became ensnared in bitter, costly legal battles with some residents and town officials that divided the community.

Knowing how haphazard the filing systems were — and how lax security was — in the libraries and rare book rooms he frequented, Smiley began stealing maps, by his own admission for about four years before he was caught in Yale’s Beinecke Library. Staff there had already become suspicious of him, and when they found an X-acto knife blade below his chair one day, they called police.

In a case that was prosecuted by the FBI, Smiley admitted to stealing almost 100 maps, primarily from the New York and Boston public libraries and from Yale University. Officials from those libraries, though, as well as from the British Library in London, contend dozens of their other maps remain unaccounted for, and many librarians suspect Smiley did not admit to all his thefts. Several map dealers, meantime, were obligated to return, at considerable cost, stolen maps that Smiley had sold to them.

Today, Smiley works as a Web designer and landscaper on Martha’s Vineyard; he seemed genuinely remorseful during his interview, Blanding said, telling him he stole not for pleasure or out of maliciousness but because “I was trying to relieve myself from this feeling of desperation, and that’s a word I never understood until it happened to me.”

Though rare maps have been stolen before, Smiley’s case is believed to be the first one involving someone with deep roots in that field, Blanding notes. Some of the affected libraries have since installed tougher security measures for guarding their maps and rare books, but they must balance that with their desire to make the collections available to the public — which means, says Blanding, “As long as maps remain highly valuable, the problem [of theft] may persist.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.