Caught with his X-Acto knife down

File photo by Steve Myrick

“The Map Thief,” by Michael Blanding, 2014, Gotham Books, New York, 300 pages, $27.50.

For some of us, maps are more powerful than the words that accompany them. When he was a boy, Michael Blanding opened books to the maps first, if there were any, to get his bearings. As a young adult backpacking abroad, he never felt lost.

“In those days before Google Earth and GPS, I felt like I could find my way anywhere as long as I had a map, offering me ownership of places where I didn’t even speak the language,” he writes in discuss at the Oak Bluffs Library next Thursday, August 14.

Given his love of maps, it’s no surprise that Mr. Blanding’s curiosity was piqued, and perhaps his indignation activated, by the news in June 2005 that a well-known dealer in historical maps, E. Forbes Smiley III, had been arrested for stealing a map from a rare-book library at Yale University.

As news of the theft spread, librarians and curators at other institutions that Mr. Smiley had frequented began to check their collections, and the news was not good. Hundreds of maps were missing from places dedicated to caring for them — the New York Public Library, the Boston Public Library, the British Library in London, Harvard University, Brown University, and of course Yale, among others. The curators and librarians were first stunned, because Mr. Smiley was a familiar and respected user of their facilities, and then embarrassed by their antiquated record-keeping and security systems. Some were unaware that they had ever had maps that Mr. Smiley eventually admitted stealing, and others discovered that many other maps in their inventory were missing.

Aside from the ease with which he pilfered so many treasures from so many sites, how was Mr. Smiley able to peddle so many stolen objects without raising suspicions? In the cozy, sometimes smug world of map collecting — or art collecting in general, for that matter — some collectors and dealers look the other way when they have a chance to acquire a piece that they have long coveted. When not many people know the value, let alone the existence, of a rare piece, why not just move it along quietly?

To reduce his punishment after he decided to plead guilty, Mr. Smiley admitted to stealing 97 maps over several years. He was sentenced to three and half years in prison in September 2006. But questions remained, chief among them Mr. Smiley’s motive. “Why did a respected map dealer at the height of his profession betray those closest to him — and deface the artifacts he spent his life preserving?” Mr. Blanding asks.

Throwing himself into the study of maps the way he had attacked other infatuations since he was a boy, Mr. Smiley made himself an authority at a young age. He specialized in early maps of Boston, New England, and the mid-Atlantic. While some colleagues distrusted him because of his quick success and questionable business practices, most respected his expertise. A natural salesman, he cultivated clients with a refined manner and an obvious passion for old maps.

A victim of his own success in some ways, Mr. Smiley was eventually unable to maintain the supply of maps that he had helped create a market for. As prices went up, more dealers jumped in, competition increased, and — full circle — prices went up.

Map theft has been around forever, between rival nations, map makers, dealers, and collectors. In recent times, it’s been easy to execute, given the musty corners of old repositories where maps are often found. Maps have disappeared without ever being noticed, and, when caught, perpetrators have usually faced limited consequences: there are no victims and who cares about old maps in the first place?

It was almost too easy for Mr. Smiley to supplement his legitimate income with hot maps. Recounting the temptation to Mr. Blanding years later, Mr. Smiley said, “I am looking at a piece of paper that I can fold and put in my pocket, that people in New York expect me to show up with because I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years legitimately. And I can get thirty thousand dollars wired up to Maine that afternoon.” And it worked, time and again, until he dropped an X-Acto knife blade in the Beinecke Library at Yale on June 8, 2005.

Mr. Smiley talked to Mr. Blanding for several hours at the outset of the latter’s research, but he soon stopped cooperating, saying that he wanted to protect his family from more publicity and that he wanted to move forward in his new life — on Martha’s Vineyard. (When contacted by The Times for this article, Mr. Smiley declined to comment.)

Pushing ahead because he had already signed a book contract, Mr. Blanding relied instead on intensive research and interviews with librarians, curators, and friends and former colleagues of Mr. Smiley. In just over 200 well-written pages, he introduces us to the fascinating history of map-making; he unwraps the tiny, rarefied world of modern map dealing and collecting; and, not least, he recounts the life and downfall of Mr. Smiley.

With the knack of a natural storyteller, Mr. Blanding provides a wealth of fascinating historical tidbits — for instance, how geographical data recorded by Ptolemy almost 2,000 years ago was rediscovered “…after a dreary thousand years of flat-earth religious maps about as useful to navigation as a cartoon… Suddenly the contours of the Mediterranean world emerged in stunning detail, filled with continents and cities only vaguely imagined before.”

Christopher Columbus had one of Ptolemy’s primitive maps aboard when he set sail from Spain in 1492. Hopelessly inaccurate, it included fanciful land masses labeled terra incognita, but perhaps it boosted the explorer’s confidence enough to get him going. Not until Gerard Mercator’s 1569 world map was there even a rough idea of the shape and relationship of the world’s major landmasses. A year later, the first collection of what could he called an atlas was published.

The map in Mr. Smiley’s pocket when he was apprehended was by Capt. John Smith, whose most important contribution to history was as a surveyor and mapmaker, not as the co-star in the Pocahontas myth. Smith created it in 1631.

A century later, British mapmakers scrambled to produce maps that would help their generals find their way around North America, first fighting the French and then the colonists for control of the “new” continent. During active hostilities, mapmakers accompanied troops into battle, their maps providing a record of the conflict to a curious public.

In a phone conversation last week, Mr. Blanding said he was looking forward to speaking here next week, and that he was curious about the reactions of Islanders to his book. He also said that he had had positive feedback from the map community about the book, which surprised him, given his unflattering portrayal of some of their practices.

Amplifying his decision to go ahead with the book without Mr. Smiley’s help, he said that he felt the book was stronger because he had to dig harder to tell the complete story. And dig he did: taken together, the appendices, notes, bibliography, and index fill 77 pages.

Mr. Blanding also said that he appreciated the time that Mr. Smiley had shared with him. In the end, he said he wrote the book because, “I love maps and he was an intriguing enough mess of contradictions to keep my interest for two or three years.”

Whether you look at it as a cautionary tale with echoes of a Greek tragedy or a psychological puzzle, “The Map Thief” is an absorbing tale that, like many good books, poses as many questions as it answers.

For instance, as Mr. Blanding wrote in the epilogue, what else might Mr. Smiley know about the scores of maps still missing, including 28 rare maps and books confiscated by the FBI from Mr. Smiley in 2005 that the FBI still possessed as of July 2013. “…[Mr. Smiley] didn’t recall where he’d gotten them,” Mr. Blanding writes, and in the intervening years, no one had claimed them.

Author’s Talk with Michael Blanding, author of “The Map Thief,” Thursday, August 14, 6:30–8 pm, Oak Bluffs Library. For more information, call 508-693-9433.