Review: The Map Thief

The Map Thief
by Michael Blanding

Michael Blanding's The Map Thief is both an education on maps and mapmaking and the true story of E. Forbes Smiley, a map expert and dealer in rare maps who stole at least 100 rare maps from libraries and museums.

Blanding had Smiley's cooperation when he began researching this book, then lost it. His research on the rare books and antique map world did include many others who were victims or beneficiaries of their relationship with Smiley. As he builds the story of Smiley's life and career, Blanding dives deep into the history of some of the individual maps that Smiley dealt with, educating us along the way.

This is a short book that I found to be an interesting read but it wasn't completely satisfying. There are gaps and unknowns in the telling, perhaps because really understanding what happened depends so much on Smiley's willingness and ability to tell (he was an admitted inveterate liar who found it hard to stick to the truth):
  • Smiley compiled a list of 97 maps he stole at the time he went to trial in 2006, claiming he wanted to make amends for what he had done, but it soon became clear that the total number was more than that. No one knows for sure how many maps he actually stole.
  • Nor does anyone know for sure when he began stealing maps. When originally apprehended he said 1998, then at trial he maintained he began in 2002. He dealt in rare maps for several years before 1998, so who really knows?
  • In Smiley's telling, his rare map gallery was burgled in 1989 and, he says he lost a quarter of a million dollars. Not having insurance, this was the beginning of his financial troubles that were well known among his fellow rare map dealers. But the author reports there are no newspaper reports of the burglary, nor could the NYPD, FBI or Interpol produce any records of having investigated. So was the burglary story perhaps Smiley's way of hinting that his map thefts began much earlier than he was actually willing to admit?
Despite the gaps, I rate this book 3 Stars ⭐⭐⭐ - I wasn't completely satisfied with this book but I liked it well enough. If you have in interest in true crime / art theft stories, you might like it too.

The Map Thief links

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