Stories of daring map thefts may call to mind fantastical Hollywood films featuring Nicolas Cage, but a lecture delivered Wednesday evening by author Michael Blanding detailed the real-life thefts of infamous rare map thief E. Forbes Smiley III.
Blanding recounted his experience researching the events that led to Smiley’s eventual arrest in 2005, including an interview with Smiley himself for Blanding’s book, “The Map Thief.” Smiley, a respected and charismatic art dealer, was often given nearly unrestricted access to libraries’ and museums’ collections of rare maps — access that allowed him to steal a total of 97 maps, together worth about $3 million.
Blanding, an investigative journalist, explained his own fascination with maps.
“I think maps reach people on a number of different levels. They can be looked at as beautiful art objects, but at the same time they have real historical value,” he said. “You can look at what’s going on in the Crimean Peninsula right now, and it’s the same thing that England and France were doing while fighting over North America hundreds of years ago. Maps have real power and real effects on people’s lives.”
Rare maps are like rare pieces of art in many ways, but one important difference between the two is the fact that map creators typically drew up to several dozen copies of the same work. These copies are often uncatalogued, which can make it difficult to determine whom to return a stolen map to if multiple copies have been reported missing.
For example, Blanding told the story of when a map of the Great Lakes — a copy of which the University owns — was recovered from Smiley’s stash.
“The librarians all got together at the FBI office in New Haven, and there was a bit of a fight between the libraries — being librarians, it was a very quiet fight — over who it actually belonged to,” he said.
A copy of that map was later sold for $750,000.
Another map that Smiley stole is an untitled map published along with Hernán Cortés’ letters that depicts the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Published in 1524, it is the oldest map of any city in North America and one of the few firsthand sources of information on Tenochtitlan, which was destroyed by Cortés a year after the map’s making.
Smiley would eventually plead guilty to stealing irreplaceable items, but due to his cooperation with the FBI, was given only three-and-a-half years in prison. He now lives in Martha’s Vineyard.
Information student Caitlin Moriarty, who attended the lecture, said stories like this are a good way to get introduced to archiving.
“These are kind of like the horror stories associated with this field,” she said. “If there were a ‘CSI: Archives,’ this would be it. I think it’s one of the more entertaining and accessible aspects of this field.”