Did famous thief steal more of our hidden map treasures?

A book on the exploits of Edward Smiley III, who had a taste for cartography, reveals ancient works are still missing

Cahal Milmo
Saturday 24 May 2014 23:41 BST
Gentleman thief: Edward Forbes Smiley III pleaded guilty in 2006 to stealing this map from Yale University
Gentleman thief: Edward Forbes Smiley III pleaded guilty in 2006 to stealing this map from Yale University (AP)

On 5 March 2005, a bespectacled American antiquarian map dealer spent time in the British Library studying one of its cartographic treasures – a 1520 map of the world belonging to the ill-fated Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. A few weeks later, the dealer – Edward Forbes Smiley III – dropped a craft knife on the floor of Yale University's map room. Within days he was unmasked as one of recent history's most prolific map thieves – ripping and slicing dozens of maps from collections on both sides of the Atlantic.

After Smiley's arrest by the FBI, British Library staff established he had crudely ripped the 1520 world map, by the German scholar Peter Apian, from the volumes of Archbishop Cranmer, a favourite of Henry VIII and architect of the English Reformation, who was burnt at the stake under Mary I. Smiley, described as a smooth-talking New Englander, smuggled his booty past the high security at the library next to St Pancras station, London and across the Atlantic. Once trimmed to remove identifying marks and offered on the open market in New York, the map would have fetched upwards of $100,000 (£59,000).

Instead, the document was recovered, and Smiley was sentenced to three and a half years in jail in 2006 and ordered to pay $2.3m in restitution to dealers and institutions. But the story of Smiley and the British Library did not end there. A new book, The Map Thief, published on Saturday sets out how the library believed the American may have been behind the theft of three more of its cartographic jewels, two of which remain missing.

Author Michael Blanding says the British Library pursued the map dealer through the US legal system in a bid to get back its missing priceless maps. Using lending records, British Library curators worked out that Smiley had consulted four maps, including the Apian, between June 2004 and March 2005; these were now missing, but were not included in the list of 97 maps that Smiley admitted stealing.

Gentleman thief: Edward Forbes Smiley III
Gentleman thief: Edward Forbes Smiley III (PA)

The library wrote to the FBI: "We continue to entertain serious doubts about the completeness of the investigation and the extent of Mr Smiley's co-operation with the authorities." The British Library employed a US lawyer to push for a harsher sentence and tried to persuade other institutions, who also believed other maps had been stolen, to begin civil proceedings. In the end, neither happened – Smiley received a shorter sentence in return for helping the US authorities, and there was no civil claim. "The British Library was by far the most aggressive in terms of trying to uncover evidence of other thefts," Michael Blanding said. "The other institutions did not go along. Whether it was because they did not want to do their dirty washing in public or not we don't know."

In London, curators were missing two copies of a 1664 map of maritime Canada by early colonialist Sir William Alexander and a 1578 woodcut world map by the Elizabethan explorer George Best,as well as the Cranmer world map, which was in a leather-bound volume. In a court deposition, the British Library said: "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; royal intrigue; times of economic depression; and the Nazi bombing of London. The volume remained intact until visited by Smiley."

Since the thefts, the British Library has tightened security around its map collection, taking ultra-high-resolution photographs which show the pattern of paper fibres, making each document traceable and thus not worth stealing.

The book establishes that Smiley turned to theft after becoming heavily indebted when property deals went wrong. "He was very good at ingratiating himself with curators. He was knowledgeable, charming and charismatic. As a result he was perhaps given some leeway in the places he visited," Mr Blanding said.

Smiley, now 58 and a $12-an-hour landscape gardener, insists he confessed to all thefts and says he has "no recollection whatsoever" of others from the British Library.

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