Friday, June 23, 2006

Map Thief Pleads Guilty

E. Forbes Smiley, a dealer "specializing" in early New England maps, admitted on Thursday the theft of 97 rare maps from at least six libraries around the world, worth more than $3 million in the antiques market but worth far more as cultural artifacts. The Hartford Courant has the most detailed coverage of yesterday's court appearance, while the LATimes and NYTimes also run pieces on the story today.

Smiley admitted to mutilating atlases and stealing maps over the past seven years from the Boston Public Library (34 maps), the New York Public Library (32), the Beinecke and Sterling Libraries at Yale (2o), Houghton Library at Harvard (8), the Newberry Library in Chicago (2) and the British Library (1). He was caught red-handed at Yale last year, after security cameras captured him removing a world map from Gerard de Jode's Speculum Orbis Terrarum, a 1578 atlas, and librarians spotted a dropped X-acto blade on the floor near Smiley's desk. When confronted, Smiley's briefcase was found to contain three maps stolen that day from the Yale; another was in his jacket pocket. Following those events, the FBI opened a full investigation of Smiley, who eventually cooperated in their investigation.

Yesterday, Smiley appeared first in federal court, pleading guilty to just one charge of "theft of major artwork." He told the judge "I did know at the time, and I do know now, that this was wrong. I very much regret my actions." He later went to state court and submitted a guilty plea on three theft charges there.

Smiley had "faced up to 60 years if convicted of all state charges, but in a combined state and federal plea agreement, he is expected to spend no more than 71 months in federal prison." He will also have to pay $1.8 million in restitution to the libraries he stole from as well as the dealers he sold to (who've had to buy back the stolen maps from customers so that they can be returned to their rightful owners). Eleven of the maps have not been returned. Smiley will be sentenced in September; until then, he's out on bond.

There are special places in hell reserved for people like Smiley; 71 months in jail (even with the loss of his professional reputation) hardly seems adequate for the damage he has done. As the Courant said in an editorial earlier this week, "Smiley will get no sympathy here. ... When it comes to crimes against property, this is about as low as one can go. Monetary value is beside the point. It's one thing to steal mere objects out of greed, but quite another to pilfer irreplaceable treasures, hugely important to the study of history, that belong not to one victim, but to civilization."

Of course, one hopes that these events will prompt better security at the harmed insitutions, and make those who collect and purchase rare maps much more cautious about their provenance - that can be the only possible good to come of this.

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