E. Forbes Smiley stole nearly a hundred rare maps worth millions of dollars—but met his match in the darkened halls of an Ivy League library.
E. Forbes Smiley III couldn’t stop coughing. No matter how much he tried to suppress it, the tickle in the back of his throat kept breaking out into a hacking cough, drawing glances from the patrons sitting around him. The glass fishbowl of a reading room at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University was quiet except for the low hum of the air-conditioning and the clicking of fingers on keyboards, making Smiley painfully aware of the noise he was making. At one point, he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket to muffle the sound. As he did, an X-Acto knife blade wrapped inside fell softly onto the carpeted floor. He folded the cloth and put it back in his pocket, oblivious to what had just happened.
When people thought of Forbes Smiley — as he was universally known by friends, dealers, librarians and clients — a few words inevitably sprang to mind: gregarious; jolly; larger-than-life. He spoke with the resonance of an Italian tenor mangled by a nasally Waspish affectation. His voice, like Daisy Buchanan’s, was “full of money.” When he made phone calls, he made sure to announce that he was calling “from the Vineyard.” His upper-crust affectations, however, were tempered by a charming self-deprecation. He’d ingratiated himself with many a librarian by inquiring after her spouse or children, and reciprocated with entertaining stories of travels around the world or the progress of the new home he was building on the Vineyard.
Most of all, people thought of his laugh. For years, friends had reveled in Smiley’s laugh, which rolled up out of his belly and wracked his body in a cackle that only increased in volume the longer it went on. It was the kind of laugh that in college had earned him free tickets from theater producers, who sat him in the front row to egg on the audience. And it generally caused people to excuse the pretension that crept into his voice when he was expounding on any of his obsessions — architecture, New England history, the blues, and, of course, maps. Whether they liked him or not, his colleagues and rivals in the map business had all been seduced by his knowledge, which in certain areas exceeded that of anyone else in the world.
On the morning of June 8, 2005, however, none of the librarians at the Beinecke’s public services desk recognized him. Had they known him, they would have been shocked at the transformation he’d undergone. In addition to a cough that had developed overnight, he was suffering from a splitting headache left over from a night of drinking. Smiley had been drinking a lot these days — it was the only thing that took his thoughts away from the problems that multiplied in his mind whenever he was sober. As gifted as he was at remembering details about maps, he was abysmal at managing the details of the business through which he earned his livelihood. No matter how entertaining his stories, the truth was that he was overextended and hemorrhaging money.
As studious as he looked, he was feeling a fresh sense of desperation by the time he left to get lunch around eleven. While he sat pondering his predicament without reaching a conclusion, the situation in the reading room had changed radically in his absence. Smiley may have missed the X-Acto knife blade that fell from his pocket, but a librarian named Naomi Saito had not. The Beinecke’s librarians make regular sweeps of the room to ensure that materials are handled properly — and to subtly alert patrons they are being watched. As Saito had entered to make her check, she immediately spied the blade on the floor. Few objects could be more disturbing to someone who works in a building full of rare books than a tool that can separate the pages of a book from its binding. Saito picked up the blade in a tissue and walked back out of the room.
When her supervisor, Ellen Cordes, arrived shortly after noon, Saito showed her what she’d found. Cordes knew that custodians had cleaned the room in the morning — so whoever had dropped the blade was probably still there. She scanned through several dozen reader cards and immediately focused on Smiley, who had by now returned to examine more books. Looking up his website and seeing he was a dealer of rare maps made her even more nervous. Cordes called over to Sterling Memorial Library, which houses Yale’s main map collection, and wasn’t reassured. The head of the department told her that Smiley had recently looked at some folders later found to be missing several maps, but the matter had been dropped for lack of proof. Finally, Cordes contacted the Beinecke’s head of security, Ralph Mannarino, who kept watch over Smiley at the front desk while Cordes went into the back room to look at the materials Smiley had examined.
Smiley continued his research, oblivious to the attention he’d attracted. He requested more items, among them a dark brown leather case with raised ridges along the spine. He slid it open in the middle, a musty odor wafting from an olive-green cloth case inside. Smiley folded out the sides into an irregularly shaped cross, uncovering a sheaf of rough-cut manuscript pages inside.
On its title page were the words:
ADVERTISEMENTS For the unexperienced Planters of New England, or any where. OR, The Path-way to experience to erect a PLANTATION
Below them was written an even more unwieldy subtitle:
With the Countries Armes, a defcription of the Coaft, Harbours, Habitations, Land-markes, Latitude and Longitude:
and, to Smiley’s purpose:
with the Map, allowed by our Royall King Charles.
Below that, finally, was the name of the author:
By Captaine JOHN SMITH, fometimes Governour of VIRGINIA, and Admiral of NEW-ENGLAND.
Smiley carefully turned the water-stained frontispiece of the book to reveal a map folded into a rectangle about six by eight inches wide. He spread it out on the table, examining the copper-engraved image he practically knew by heart. Unusual for maps of this time period — or any time period — a portrait of the mapmaker fills the entire upper left-hand corner of the page. It is the only known portrait of Smith, drawn when the captain was thirty-six. He looks proud and wary, with shoulders thrown back and piercing eyes staring over a bushy beard and waxed mustache. In the portrait Smith eschews the ruffled collar of a gentleman in favor of a patterned leather jerkin, his hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword — solidifying his reputation as a soldier and adventurer.
Carved around the portrait are the pits and points of the New England coastline. Despite a few notable errors, the map is regarded as the first accurate depiction of the Massachusetts and Maine coastlines, and the foundation for generations of maps that would come after it — all the more remarkable considering the short period of time Smith spent surveying.
For generations of collectors, the map is also notoriously difficult to pin down. Smith produced no less than nine different versions, or states, of the map, with subtle updates and corrections between 1614 and 1631. To a serious collector, all these slight differences matter a great deal. The state of the map and its rarity could mean a difference of tens of thousands of dollars in a sale.
Smiley knew this well. In fact, he was one of the few people in the world who knew just how rare this map was. Smith’s map of New England had become scarce on the market, with copies now coming up at auction once or twice in a generation and fetching anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. With that thought in mind, Smiley refolded the map down into its original rectangle, about the size of a letter envelope. The map was already free in the book, its four-hundred-year-old glue long since having given way and separated from the binding. Smiley waited until he thought no one was looking and then quickly slipped the folded page into the pocket of his blazer.
At the circulation desk a dozen yards away, the Beinecke’s head of security, Ralph Mannarino, was still watching Smiley for signs of suspicious behavior. Now as he watched Smiley get up to check something on the computer, he noticed that he seemed to be fidgeting with something inside his blazer pocket. That Smiley was even wearing a jacket on such a warm day seemed strange to him. As Smiley went to sit back down, Mannarino decided to call Yale Police for backup.
The call went to Detective Martin Buonfiglio, a tall officer with a gray mustache, who was dressed in a plainclothes uniform of a sports coat, tie, and khaki pants. He was just sitting down to lunch at a nearby pizza house. “Someone found a razor blade at the Beinecke,” his sergeant told him.
Buonfiglio shrugged. “So?” he said. “Call someone on patrol.”
“They are really upset down there,” the caller insisted. “I need you to check it out.”
* * *
Cicadas were whirring in the trees as Smiley left the library. He figured he had just enough time to visit the research library in the Yale Center for British Art, which had one more atlas he wanted to examine before the fair in London. The day was now pushing eighty-five degrees, and Smiley started sweating almost immediately under his blazer. The long hours hunched over in the reading room had also taken their toll on his back, which throbbed with pain as he walked.
Detective Buonfiglio waited behind the corner of the building, watching through the glass as Smiley stopped and put his briefcase down on the low concrete wall edging the Beinecke’s courtyard. Smiley opened the briefcase and looked around to either side before closing it and continuing. Buonfiglio followed twenty feet behind as Smiley crossed to a pedestrian walkway heading south toward the art museum, keeping a screen of pedestrians between Smiley and himself as they walked.
After a few dozen yards, the walkway opened up into a large courtyard in front of the Sterling Memorial Library. Buonfiglio was glad Smiley didn’t enter the building, where it would be difficult to follow him without being noticed. Even so, he faced a dilemma. If Smiley was heading to his car, then Buonfiglio had only a few moments in which to make an arrest. But without probable cause, he had no right to stop and search him. If it came to it, he could do an illegal search — at least he’d get back whatever Smiley stole, even if he failed to get the pinch.
As he followed behind Smiley, he kept trying to reach his superior, Lieutenant Bill Holohan for orders, but the calls went to voice mail. He had to make up his mind on his own. For a moment, he thought he lost Smiley as he reached the end of the pedestrian walkway at Elm Street, a busy avenue with three lanes of fast-moving traffic. Buonfiglio looked around wildly before just spying the back of Smiley’s head continuing down High Street. The detective quickly crossed behind him. The street narrowed, with heavy stone buildings on both sides casting cool shadows over the sidewalk. Smiley stopped just before the Harkness Tower, Yale’s landmark two-hundred-foot clock tower, where he once again put down his briefcase on another stone wall. Again he opened it, looked both ways, and closed it.
Smiley was oblivious to the detective on his tail, still preoccupied with the weight of his indecision about whether or not to go to London. He crossed the street and continued walking for a half block before realizing he’d passed his destination, the Yale Center for British Art. Walking down the other side of the street, Buonfiglio closed the distance, thinking Smiley was heading for a parking lot behind the museum. When Smiley turned around, Buonfiglio ducked into a barbershop, watching him as he entered the door to the museum on his left. Almost immediately, Smiley realized that he had entered the museum’s gift shop, rather than the main entrance, and left as soon as he went in.
Warily, Buonfiglio crossed back to the other side of High Street and followed Smiley as he turned the corner and once again passed the museum. He froze as Smiley suddenly turned back, walking right past him, then finally turning right under a stone arcade that covered the entrance. Inside, the lobby of the museum was mercifully cool. Smiley crossed the lobby, passing by two sculptures — a bronze of an armored man striding confidently forward with laurels on his head, and a modern stone sculpture of a woman looking back over her shoulder, one eye a gaping hole.
He handed over his briefcase at the coat check and began walking toward the elevator. That was when he heard a voice behind him asking him to stop. He turned around to see a tall mustached man wearing a jacket and tie approaching him.
“Hi, I work for Yale. Were you just over at the Beinecke?” asked Buonfiglio.
“Yes,” Smiley said quickly. “I’m a researcher. I go there a lot.”
“Is this yours, by any chance?” Buonfiglio asked, unwrapping the X‑Acto knife blade from the tissue paper and showing it to Smiley.
“Yes, it is. I must have dropped it,” Smiley replied, adding a bit nonsensically, “I have a cold.”
Buonfiglio tried his best to appear nonchalant, knowing Smiley had no obligation to cooperate. “Well, folks over there think you might have taken something by mistake,” he said. “Do you mind if I take a look at your briefcase?”
“Of course,” Smiley said. “No problem.” He walked back to the desk, retrieved the briefcase, and opened it up to the policeman, revealing a jumble of papers that included several maps. “I’m a collector,” Smiley said. “These are my maps.”
Buonfiglio could see that Smiley had gone pale and that thick white saliva had begun to form in the corners of his mouth, sure signs of nervousness. “Look, I don’t know what’s what and who belongs to who,” Buonfiglio said after a glance at the maps. “Would you mind coming back with me to the library?”
“Of course,” Smiley said again.
As they were leaving, Buonfiglio finally received a call back from his superior, Lieutenant Holohan, who arranged to pick them up outside the museum. As they drove toward the Beinecke, Smiley mentioned that he might miss his train. “Don’t worry,” said Buonfiglio. “If I have to, I’ll drive you to New York myself.”
* * *
When they arrived at the Beinecke, the officers asked Smiley to stand in the back of the mezzanine near the lockers, while they spread out the maps from his briefcase atop a glass display case. While he’d been gone, staff members had been frantically looking through the books he’d examined to see if any maps were missing. That wasn’t as straightforward as it might seem. Rare books might have any number of maps inside them — and different editions might have different maps, or have been missing maps before they even arrived at the library. Most of the cataloguing, meanwhile, was maddeningly incomplete, sometimes referring simply to the number of maps in a book, or including just the generic word “maps” without additional information.
One exception was the Smith book, which the catalog record clearly listed as containing his map of New England. Looking through the documents the police officers had recovered, however, library supervisor Ellen Cordes didn’t see the Smith map among them. She asked Smiley if he had the map, and he demurred, only saying he knew of the map and it was rare. But he continued to insist he had brought all of the maps he had with him. By this time, Smiley felt strangely calm, his mind almost blank, as if the whole experience was happening to someone else. He’d get out of this, he told himself, and when he did, he would make some big changes in his life. The only strong sensation he felt was the pain in his back, which throbbed more acutely the longer he stood.
Holohan stayed upstairs with Smiley as Buonfiglio went back and forth to the office downstairs to consult with Cordes. “You’ve got to tell me what he stole,” he said impatiently. “Otherwise I got to release this guy.”
“Did you search him?” asked security head Ralph Marinanno, telling Buonfiglio how he had seen Smiley fidgeting with his coat.
“I’m lucky I even got him back here,” said Buonfiglio. But when he got back upstairs, he mentioned Smiley’s fidgeting to Holohan.
“Would you mind just showing us if you have anything in your pocket?” Holohan asked. Smiley pulled a credit card from the inside pocket of his blazer. As he did, however, Holohan noticed there was still a bulge there. “What else do you have in there?” he asked.
Smiley pulled out a folded piece of paper, saying, “Oh, I forgot about that.”
Back in her office, Cordes unfolded the paper to see the portrait of John Smith staring out of the upper left-hand corner, along with the familiar outlines of the New England coast. In the bottom margin was writing in pencil she recognized as belonging to Henry C. Taylor, a benefactor of the Beinecke who had donated many maps and had a distinctive way of writing his s’s.
“That’s our map!” she cried.
“Are you sure?” asked Buonfiglio.
“There is no doubt in my mind.”
Buonfiglio brought the map back upstairs and asked Smiley where he’d gotten it.
“I bought it from Philip Burden, a map dealer in London,” he answered.
Buonfiglio pressed him: “So if I call this guy, he’s going to know you, and he’s going to know you bought this map from him?”
Smiley put his hands to his head, pressing his fingers into his temples for a few moments. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Maybe I didn’t get it from him.”
Buonfiglio had heard enough. “You are under arrest,” he said, “for larceny in the first degree.”
* * *
This story is excerpted from “The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps” by Michael Blanding. Published by arrangement with Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), LLC. Copyright (c) 2014 by Blanding Enterprises, LLC.
Michael Blanding is the author of The Map Thief (Gotham, 2014) and The Coke Machine (Avery, 2010), and a journalist with more than fifteen years of experience writing long-form narrative and investigative journalism. His writing has appeared in The Nation, The New Republic, Consumers Digest, and the Boston Globe Magazine. Blanding is currently a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and a staff writer at Harvard Business School.