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Issues arising out of the Forbes Smiley affair

The E. Forbes Smiley III map thefts: reports and news stories (2005-2007)

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The Forbes Smiley case - for details see the news stories - represents a serious breach of trust between a well-known map dealer and the curators of rare Americana collections (mostly in the USA). Some of the maps he is alleged to have stolen have been recovered already and it is hoped that others will be in future. So, should we now move on to other things?

This would be the easiest and the worst possible outcome. The Smiley case has exposed, very publicly, the danger that some of us have been warning about for years. Action rarely precedes a disaster. Let us hope that the right steps will be taken after this one.

The problem is that there is a mismatch of knowledge between a specialist thief and the generalist rare book librarian responsible for curating the volumes he targets. Most maps were published in collections (atlases), which are normally kept in a map library. There, their financial value and hence vulnerability is fully understood. However, the rare maps of North America mentioned in this case (with cited individual values up to $500,000) illustrate printed books. A specialist thief, who has done his homework among the bibliographies, dealers' catalogues and union lists of library holdings, knows the location and value of such highly saleable maps. It is hardly surprising that few generalist rare books curators will be aware of the easily removed maps dotted among many thousands of volumes in their care.

What Smiley is reported to have done has very likely happened before, without anybody being aware. Unless this material can be identified and given appropriate security, it will certainly happen again - prompted in part by the present publicity.

The comments below outline a realisable programme to provide the rare book curators with bibliographic aids appropriate for the sad realities of today's world. There are three suggested stages. First, a researcher is hired to identify the vulnerable volumes (i.e. those containing desirable maps, especially of North America or the world as a whole, and of sufficient commercial value); second the resulting list is matched against existing union catalogues of library holdings; and third a census is carried out of such volumes, to determine if the map(s) remain in them. Because of this exercise, the libraries involved will be forewarned about those volumes that need an unusually high level of security and invigilation. If such an inventory is then published on the web, it would alert any potential thief (who would probably already have the basic information anyway) that, now, the librarians were prepared for him.

Once the excitement over this case dies down, if we decide collectively to do nothing effective, I can guarantee that the existing and 'silent' pillaging of maps from rare books will continue, almost certainly at a rate that grows in line with increased market value. Rare books librarians, this is your call. Map specialists would certainly be ready to assist. But if you do no more than wring your hands over the present disaster you could reasonably be held responsible for the next.

For the latest news about these alleged thefts of early maps of North America see here

  1. Differing objectives
  2. What is actually happening?
  3. A comprehensive list is required against which to check library holdings
  4. The benefits from such an inventory
  5. Action for the future?

A footnote on forensic bibliographical identification

"The FBI requests that institutions holding rare maps in their collections review their records and collections as soon as possible 1) to determine whether Mr. Smiley reviewed books/maps in their possession and 2) to determine whether any maps are believed missing" (Alert/Request for Information, July 7, 2005)

"The FBI, which is investigating the case, has contacted the world’s top map curators, asking them to review their collections" (Randall Beach in the New Haven Register, 10 August 2005)

This, disappointingly, is about as much as we have been told about the way the investigation is proceeding (not, of course, that we would expect to be given confidential details). This webpage asks the question 'will this approach work?'. Concluding that this is highly unlikely, it suggests a more rigorous alternative.

1. Differing objectives

Broadly, four groups are affected by these alleged thefts. Their objectives, while overlapping, may not be identical:

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2. What is actually happening?

What steps are known to have been taken so far? The numerous American newspaper articles (starting in early July) listed a few book and map titles, simply because those were the maps reportedly found in Smiley's possession. There has to be a suspicion that the FBI's request to the 'world’s top map curators, asking them to review their collections' involves just this brief, and arbitrary list, combined with the hope that records will have been kept of what Smiley consulted. In other words, it relates only to the material already recovered or to what was known to have been seen by Smiley, not to the far larger pool of potential targets. What are the curators actually doing? Hunting just for those titles, or have they been asked to 'look for books with early North American maps in them' - in which case, when will they get done? How do you search if you have no list?

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3. A comprehensive list is required against which to check library holdings

Any early map has some market value [which may be quite different from its historical and cultural importance]. However, those reported in this case related specifically to 16th and 17th century North America (including the world as a whole). It is therefore suggested that the following is required:

  1. A comprehensive list, drawn up on the basis of existing carto-bibliographies, dealers' lists, etc. of all commercially valuable early maps relating to North America (before perhaps 1700 or 1750) found in books rather than atlases. Determining financial value would require the appropriate specialist expertise. A quick check through one of the more obvious cartobibliographies (whose details, for obvious reasons, are not given here) produced no more than 60 pre-1600 entries, and several of those would be of modest market value.
  2. That list to be checked against the union catalogues (OCLC, RLIN, ESTC, NUC and any others, e.g. European ones) for the names of the libraries known to hold each title. [This will not of course be a complete list but it could perhaps be supplemented from bibliographies.]
  3. The relevant entries to be circulated to the each of the libraries involved
  4. They to be asked to check if the map(s) is there
  5. If not, is there evidence of its removal (i.e. a torn or cut guard, to which the map had originally been attached)?
  6. If the map has been removed (rather than never having been present) is it known when it was definitely last in the volume
  7. Is it known if Smiley (a) visited that library and (b) saw that volume, and, if so, when?
Clearly this would require a few months' work by a paid researcher. Given the estimated value of the individual items concerned (up to $500,000 in one case), and the understanding that trust cannot be restored between curators, dealers and collectors without a full and transparent investigation of this kind, it is hoped that all concerned will realise its importance. It would certainly be considerably cheaper than asking each rare book curator to attempt to replicate that research separately. An individual or institution might be persuaded to fund it.

So far, unless the FBI or their foreign equivalents have carried out, or commissioned, the kind of research described above, they are likely to have provided only very incomplete bibliographical information and sent this to what is presumably a very incomplete list of relevant libraries. It is not just the world's 'top curators' who need to be contacted. Unless they have been individually notified, it is almost certain that many of the potentially relevant libraries (even in the USA) will be unaware of the FBI's exercise. Certainly one American librarian said that he was sorry not to have heard earlier about the original FBI alert. Thieves, on the other hand, tend to do their homework and it is likely that they know exactly which library has which volume.

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4. The benefits from such an inventory

There are those who argue that any information about library holdings becomes a thief's shopping-list. The opposite is the case. Paradoxically, if the results of such an investigation were made public (and much of the information is already publicly available via the union catalogues mentioned above) there would be a range of tangible benefits for all concerned (except thieves):

  1. As many as possible of the institutions holding vulnerable books with inserted maps would be alerted to treat them as a high security risk. It is likely that the vast majority of these will not yet be known to the curators involved. If in future, such material had to be seen under a CCTV camera, and with bags and coats banned, this would have a major deterrent effect, without restricting access. So, too, would the marking of such maps with an indelible library stamp. It would also answer the dealers' understandable complaints about the contributory factor of library negligence, which can have serious financial consequences for them.
  2. It would create a clear baseline for the presence/absence of such maps in volumes that might not have been looked at for years. Older catalogue entries will often have omitted to mention the map(s) anyway. If a map is found missing in future it must have been taken since the investigation.
  3. It might provide an alternative route to material that could have been handled by Smiley over the 25 years he says he has been in this business (or - and the possibility is a very real one - by others).
  4. It will underline for rare book librarians the value of the specialist information held by their map library colleagues. Whereas atlases are usually curated by map specialists, the map as text illustration will normally (and understandably) be found in a rare book collection. While the map specialists (curators, collectors, dealers, auctioneers - and thieves) will tend to know of the existence and value of such maps, can one expect the same to be true of the rare book curator? In how many of those public collections that are likely to hold such works is their special vulnerability understood? Steal one page from a first folio Shakespeare and you have nothing of value; slip into your jacket pocket a single sheet from a book containing an early map of North America and you may have a readily saleable, broadly untraceable, artefact worth up to six figures in dollars. Sadly, the frequency with which maps are targeted makes it clear that, to a thief, they are the single most attractive objects in a rare book collection.

[Afternote, 12 February 2007. As the issue has reappeared on the MapHist list, it is worth adding that any listing of high security maps could be kept private, accessible only to members of the appropriate rare book institutions.]

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5. Action for the future?

In the long term there needs to be a systematic documenting of maps in books, dealing with what can be called the 'final frontier' of map bibliography. This must presumably wait.

I hope that this webpage may prove redundant and that everything is proceeding in a thoroughly joined-up manner. Frankly, I doubt it. The earlier opinion piece, How should we respond to early map thefts? (2002), described the fragmentation between the different groups involved in the aftermath of the earlier map thefts across Europe, and between those in (and within) different countries. Yet the trade in maps is completely international. This case has, cartographically, a strong North American flavour, but the maps concerned could have come to the USA from anywhere.

Has anything improved in the past three years? It may have, and there is certainly at least one new security network. But there is still no network of networks, and no single, web-mounted listing of stolen maps (arranged bibliographically, with the institutional origin suppressed). I also doubt that the present investigation is doing more than scrape the surface, or that the appropriate map expertise has been called upon by the law enforcement agencies.

There seems no reason to update any of what was said in 2002, except, perhaps, to repeat its final sentence: 'Next time that such thefts occur, as they probably will, there needs to be a more effective response'.

Tony Campbell
(formerly Map Librarian, British Library and, prior to that, an antiquarian map dealer)
(preliminary draft) 15 August 2005

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Please copy the URL for this page to any individual or group that might be interested. Comments to:  

A footnote on forensic bibliographical identification

It has been rightly stated that it is very difficult to prove that a particular map came originally from a particular library or a particular volume, unless there was a library stamp (which remains visible). In the case of an atlas map, it can sometimes be shown to fit back exactly into its parent volume. The maps involved in this case, however, will not normally have the same dimensions as their parent volume.

However, the map may have left a 'footprint' (particularly if it was folded several times) leaving an indentation like a platemark, which would show its original size. Even if the folds have subsequently been pressed out, they can usually be seen and measured, allowing the original size in the volume to be calculated precisely. There may perhaps be offsetting of the neighbouring text on the verso of the map, or matching worm-holes. All of which makes it important to attempt to match any suspect map with a vandalised volume.

[added 7 January 2007]
Miles Harvey, The Island of Lost Maps (Random House, 2000) p.283, describes how the FBI technicians, working on the fall-out from the Gilbert Bland thefts, tried 'to match each stolen map, jigsaw-puzzle style, with each damaged book, using ultra-violet-light technology to make sure the edges lined up precisely and the paper stock was exactly the same on both sides of the cut.'

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