Interview with Michael Blanding, author of The Map Thief

Disgraced map dealer Forbes Smiley once told reporter Michael Blanding that he hoped that the stories about his thefts “would go away.” That might be so. But thankfully Blanding took up the case, telling a powerful story about the nature of crime and greed. I blurbed Blanding’s book called The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps with those words. Recently, I interviewed Blanding via email. A lightly edited transcript below.

Why did you write this book?

I’ve been a lover of maps since a young age – something about looking at map immediately makes me excited about traveling and discovering new places. So when I first heard about Smiley’s case back in 2005 I was very intrigued by his story and this world of rare-map collectors it involves. In 2011, I was complaining to a journalist friend that I didn’t have any good story ideas, and she mentioned that Smiley had just been released from prison and I should try and interview him. As soon as I spoke to him, I knew that I had the subject for a fascinating book that would be part psychological profile of a thief, part history of mapmaking, and part investigation into this obscure subculture.

Why does it matter?
Maps have been incredibly important documents over the centuries — they have helped to discover new territories, define boundaries, establish trading empires, and win wars. And yet, most people don’t know a lot about them. Many of these historical maps exist in only a few copies safeguarded by rare-book libraries and other institutions and so when someone steals or defaces them, they are changing our understanding of history. The fact that it was a lover of and dealer in rare maps who was doing the stealing intrigued me and made me ask what makes someone betray the thing that he loves most for personal gain. I think that is a very human story to which everyone can relate.

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What surprised you the most?

While I found what Smiley did despicable, I also found him to be sympathetic and relatable in many ways. One of the most surprising aspects of his story was his attempts to essentially buy a small town in Maine during the course of his thefts, and develop it into the image of a perfect New England village. He bought the post office, and a restaurant, and general store, and ended up employing half of the town, which thought he was Robin Hood come to save their community. Unfortunately half of the town didn’t share his vision, and he got in all kinds of legal battles that ended up costing him more money and, if they didn’t cause his thefts, they certainly exacerbated them. 

Does Smiley’s story provider broader lessons for how we think about crime and criminal justice?

Smiley’s thefts were a test case in the area of antiquities theft. Because he  admitted to many of his thefts, he ended up getting a lighter sentence than some of his victims thought he should get. I can see both sides–one the one hand, authorities wanted to present an incentive to future thieves to cooperate in recovering artifacts; on the other, victims argue that by not giving a heavier sentence, the law isn’t doing enough to deter future thefts. As I go into in the book, however, there were also serious questions raised about how much he cooperated with authorities and whether he actually admitted to all of his thefts or not. There are a lot of good arguments on both sides, and ultimately I leave it to the reader to decide for him- or herself.

Have there been any developments since the book was released? Have you heard from Smiley himself?

I’ve been very pleased to receive positive feedback from nearly everyone I wrote about, including map dealers, librarians, and some of Smiley’s friends. I had really tried to present all sides fairly and accurately, so it was gratifying to hear that I had succeeded. The two exceptions were one map dealer who did not like the way I portrayed him in the book (Anyone who’s read the book could probably figure out who this is), and Smiley himself– from whom I’ve heard nothing from since he stopped talking to me halfway through the reporting. I did send him a copy a few weeks prior to publication and thanked him for his participation, but I never heard back from him, and I’m not sure I ever will.

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