A Tragedy Repeated

The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps, by Michael Blanding (Penguin)

The title of Michael Blanding’s The Map Thief makes the book sound like a true-crime read: gripping, esteemed, millions, priceless. But like much true-crime writing, this book isn’t really a tale of justice served. It’s a tragedy.

Faced with financial difficulties, E. Forbes Smiley III, the “esteemed rare-map dealer” of the title, began stealing maps from university and public libraries. Most of these maps were included as plates in accounts of explorations and books for ships’ captains, but the value of the individual plates means more and more of these valuable old books are being dismantled. Sometimes the dismantling is legal, if still unsettling. A purchaser of a book breaks it up because the value of its parts is greater than the value of its whole.

But for several decades (at least; there’s no definitive history of this subject) high-end thieves have begun this dismembering process without authorization within the confines of the institutions created to protect these books. A carefully chosen seat away from the circulation desk, a razor blade or a length of damp string, a bit of sleight of hand—that’s all that’s been required.  And this crime is a double crime in that it’s not only the map that’s been stolen; another of the exceedingly rare intact copies of these old texts has disappeared forever, whether or not the map is ever recovered.

When I first saw the promotional blurbs for this book, I wondered whether it was actually a re-issue of a title I’d read almost fifteen years ago, Miles Harvey’s The Island of Lost Maps. In that book, Harvey told the story of Gilbert Bland, Smiley’s criminal predecessor. In Smiley’s case as in Bland’s the extent of the thefts may never be known. Both men offered some cooperation with prosecutors, but both are suspected of having underestimated their activities, and the libraries and institutions they raided have substantial lists of maps that disappeared at the time one of the two was at work, but that either haven’t been recovered or weren’t thoroughly catalogued to begin with, making the extent of the loss indeterminable.

Of these two titles, I prefer Blanding’s work, though both offer engaging, if heart-breaking reads. Both authors fold wonderful histories of the science of cartography and the production of individual maps into their books, but Harvey’s wanders afield on a regular basis, turning into meditations on the author’s own relationship with his father. Harvey attempts to tie this personal material to the main narrative, but it comes across as inappropriate and self-indulgent. Blanding’s work maintains a tighter focus.

As a life-long lover of old books and printed materials, I can’t help but see Blanding’s book as a tragedy. I may never visit any of the libraries or institutions that were robbed, but knowing that were I to travel to one of them I would be unable to see materials it once held, would be handed incomplete, rather than intact manuscripts feels like a personal loss. In some way these volumes were held in trust for me.

If that seems a bit overblown, let me share a passage in which Blanding describes and quotes from a brief the British Library submitted when Smiley was on trial. In this case, the missing map had been removed from a book once owned by Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury—

He [Golding, a British librarian] took the Apian world map as an example [of the losses from Smiley’s thefts], detailing how the Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer had married Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn in 1533, only to be later burned at the stake for heresy. “The volume and map remained intact surviving catastrophic events: the execution of its owner and the disbursement of his property; Civil War and the ascendance of Oliver Cromwell; times of economic depression; and the Nazi bombing of London. The volume remained intact until visited by Smiley.”

One of the most tragic aspects of this case is that Smiley’s thefts weren’t contemporaneous with Bland’s. Bland’s thefts took place in the mid-nineties. Smiley’s took place fifteen to twenty years later. The libraries and institutions victimized the first time around made some changes to their security, but these changes weren’t enough to prevent Smiley’s subsequent and near-identical crimes. Blanding does discuss increasing security measures taken in the wake of Smiley’s crimes, but it is genuinely tragic that more of these weren’t taken the first time around.


Note: I received an electronic ARC of this book in exchange for my honest review. This book will appear in bookstores on 5/29/14.

May 23 2014 06:48 am | Uncategorized

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