Antiques expert admits stealing maps worth £1.6m

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Edward Forbes Smiley III always made a selling point of his single-minded pursuit of the world's most precious maps. The American antiques dealer boasted to clients that he was "very aggressive" in his buying method.

But the true extent of the urbane antiquarian's bullishness was only confirmed on Thursday when he pleaded guilty to stealing nearly 100 maps worth £1.6m from institutions including the British Library.

The map dealer from New England admitted to an eight-year crime spree during which he used his professional credentials to smooth his way into leading libraries and museums on both sides of the Atlantic before slicing pages from volumes up to 500 years old.

Smiley, 50, who faces six years in prison and a fine of up to £860,000, is the latest in a succession of map thieves who have targeted British institutions.

The American dealer confirmed to a court in Connecticut that one of the charts he stole was a Tudor world map dating from 1520, taken from the reading room of the British Library between February and September last year. The library said it was trying to trace three other maps stolen in the same period.

Lawyers for Smiley said he had decided to admit to all his thefts after he was arrested at Yale University last year. Yesterday he pleaded guilty to three theft charges and asked for a total of 97 offences to be considered.

The pilferer might still have been operating but for a keen-eyed librarian at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library who noticed a scalpel blade on the floor of the Rare Documents Reading Room one morning in June last year. She also noted that the only man there at the time was looking at old books with maps. She identified him as Smiley by cross-referencing the library register with the internet, which revealed his identity as a rare-map dealer.

When the silver-haired Smiley emerged from the library en route to another campus library, he was intercepted by police. A search revealed that he was carrying seven maps cut from books in the space of a few hours.

His arrest sent a ripple of discomfort through the cosy and learned world of map dealers and cartographers after it emerged that the spree had been perpetrated by one of the trade's "inner circle". Among the institutions targeted by Smiley were the New York and Boston public libraries, a private library in Chicago and Harvard University.

Smiley, who ran a gallery in New York before moving to Martha's Vineyard, a wealthy Massachusetts island, sold the stolen maps through his network of private dealers and collectors. It is understood that at least six of the stolen maps were sold to British clients.

On his website, Smiley detailed his expertise in helping collectors and institutions build up collections of maps and atlases relating to the discovery of North America. He pointed to his role in acquiring maps for two public collections, including one of English maps held at the New York Public Library. There is no suggestion that these maps were improperly acquired.

But the antiquarian gave a hint of his modus operandi, saying: "I work to protect the collector's interest. This service includes negotiating on the collector's behalf as well as offering important maps and atlases from our inventory."

Peter Barber, the head of the British Library map collection, said in a recent interview: "In the past, the people who have stolen maps have been mainly outsiders - not properly professional. Forbes Smiley is disturbing as he is a member of the inner circle."

Mr Barber said he recalled being approached by the dealer when he visited in June 2004. "I remember he had made a great effort to meet me and I was puzzled as to why. Gut feelings are not evidence, but something about the whole encounter had seemed very odd. His whole manner was odd. He was almost timid but I thought also nervous and shifty."

The arrest led to what US detectives described as a "global treasure hunt" to find the 97 stolen maps with the help of police forces including Scotland Yard. To date, all but 11 of the maps have been recovered. Among the recovered maps were the first to carry the name New England and the first French map formally recognising the US.

Kimberly Mertz, the investigating FBI agent, said: "It's just incredible that things of that value are so readily accessible in libraries around the world."