Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Map Thief

The Map Thief by  Michael Blanding
Gotham: 5/29/2014
Hardcover, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781592408177

The story of an infamous crime, a revered map dealer with an unsavory secret, and the ruthless subculture that consumed him
Maps have long exerted a special fascination on viewers—both as beautiful works of art and as practical tools to navigate the world. But to those who collect them, the map trade can be a cutthroat business, inhabited by quirky and sometimes disreputable characters in search of a finite number of extremely rare objects.
Once considered a respectable antiquarian map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley spent years doubling as a map thief —until he was finally arrested slipping maps out of books in the Yale University library. The Map Thief delves into the untold history of this fascinating high-stakes criminal and the inside story of the industry that consumed him.
Acclaimed reporter Michael Blanding has interviewed all the key players in this stranger-than-fiction story, and shares the fascinating histories of maps that charted the New World, and how they went from being practical instruments to quirky heirlooms to highly coveted objects. Though pieces of the map theft story have been written before, Blanding is the first reporter to explore the story in full—and had the rare privilege of having access to Smiley himself after he’d gone silent in the wake of his crimes. Moreover, although Smiley swears he has admitted to all of the maps he stole, libraries claim he stole hundreds more—and offer intriguing clues to prove it. Now, through a series of exclusive interviews with Smiley and other key individuals, Blanding teases out an astonishing tale of destruction and redemption.
The Map Thief interweaves Smiley’s escapades with the stories of the explorers and mapmakers he knew better than anyone. Tracking a series of thefts as brazen as the art heists in Provenance and a subculture as obsessive as the oenophiles in The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Blanding has pieced together an unforgettable story of high-stakes crime.

My Thoughts:

The Map Thief by Michael Blanding is a very highly recommended nonfiction account of a map dealer who stole hundreds of antique maps from collections, as well as a history lesson about some of the maps he stole.

You don't have to love old maps to fully appreciate The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps by  Michael Blanding, but it helps if you at least appreciate them and enjoy reading about the history behind the creation of some of the maps.

E. Forbes Smiley III was an antiquarian map dealer who was also a thief. He stole an unknown quantity of maps, perhaps over 200, from libraries and collections, and then sold these public treasures in order to finance his lifestyle. Since the number of actual rare maps Smiley stole is unknown (although a list of known stolen maps from around the world is included), it is difficult to put a total price on what he stole but it was certainly in the millions.

Blanding interviewed Smiley at the beginning of the book, but later Smiley tried to distance himself from the publishing of this book. At that point Blanding had already been talking to "a wider circle of people, investigating a paper trail of court documents, and spending hours sifting through library archives and volumes of old maps." With or without Smiley's further cooperation, Blandings began to piece together "an answer to my biggest question: 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? The more I researched his story, however, the more questions I uncovered—to the point where I began to suspect that his reasons for cutting off our  correspondence had less to do with the advice of his advisor or the impact on his family, and more to do with his own fears of exposing secrets he has never revealed."

Since Blanding also has a love of old and rare maps he is a good author to tell this story which involves the history of the maps themselves and the intrigue of Smiley's prolonged theft of so many maps over several years. Blanding writes, "I read about him in The New Yorker in October 2005 with fascination—first, for the maps themselves, these historical documents that were at once beautiful and flawed, and second, for this strange character at the center of the crime, so mysterious in his decision to despoil the world he loved."

After the news of Smiley's arrest for stealing maps broke and the word was out to curators, "One by one, they began to call with panicked reports of maps missing from books in their collections as well. As they did, more questions began to reverberate through the insular world of map libraries, collectors, and dealers: Why had a respected and successful antiquarian dealer turned against those who trusted him and stolen the things he loved most? And how long had he been getting away with it?"

This fascinating book not only covers the deeply flawed and contradictory personality of Smiley and his lifestyle, it also does an excellent job explaining the history, provenance, and importance of various maps and precisely why they are so valuable. He talks to other map dealers, clients, and curators. The book includes an 8 page color insert and black and white photos throughout, chapter notes, and an index. As mentioned, there is a list of all the maps that are known to be missing from libraries and public collections worldwide.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Gotham Books for review purposes.

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