Author Michael Blanding

Author Michael Blanding (Kevin Day Photography / January 26, 2014)

In his previous incarnation, before breaking bad, E. Forbes Smiley III was more than a buyer and seller of rare maps. He was a self-taught scholar of cartographers and their masterworks. He can still expound, no doubt, on the historical value of maps, how they charted the course of empires and made fortunes, how they tell stories. Those with the best maps had a head start, whether they were explorers, acquisitive European monarchs, captains of trading ships, or map dealers.

Smiley often had the best maps because he had become the consummate map thief. From at least 2002 to 2005 he systematically stole historic maps, some worth more than $100,000, from places like Yale, Harvard, the New York Public Library, and the British Museum. He was a real life Pink Panther, only his heists topped fiction: hardly anyone realized anything was missing.

Smiley's misadventures are chronicled in Michael Blanding's new book, "The Map Thief: The Gripping Story of an Esteemed Rare-Map Dealer Who Made Millions Stealing Priceless Maps." Before his subject stopped talking, the author interviewed Smiley at his home on Martha's Vineyard in 2011.

Smiley pled guilty in 2006 and admitted to stealing 97 maps after he was caught: his dénouement came on June 8, 2005 when he dropped a telltale X-Acto blade on the floor of the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven. Blanding's book recounts how after Smiley dropped the blade, security was alerted, and he was followed to the Yale Center for British Art where he was confronted and asked if he recognized the blade. Security asked to see what was in Smiley's briefcase. He agreed to the search, and the stolen maps were found inside the briefcase.

Officials subsequently documented 11 additional maps that he had purloined but were not on his original list of maps he had admitted taking, bringing the total of documented stolen maps to 108 with an aggregate value of nearly $2.3 million. For thieving and cooperating Smiley was sentenced to three and a half years. He entered prison in January 2007, and was released in early 2010 for good behavior after serving just over three years.

But the libraries had reported 256 maps missing all told, and it remains unclear how they disappeared. For example, Yale's Sterling Memorial Library reported 89 missing maps to the FBI, but Smiley admitted to taking only 11 of them. It was at Sterling, Smiley told Blanding, that he had visions of larceny: "The Sterling Library is the first place I realized I had access to material that was not well catalogued, and it wasn't clear it would be missed."

Blanding is an investigative journalist and senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University who has written for a number of publications including The Nation, The New Republic and The Boston Globe Magazine. This is his second book, his previous "The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World's Favorite Soft Drink. He spoke with The Courant by telephone.

Q: Do you know how the restitution is going to those he stole from or sold stolen maps to? Is it likely all will be made whole?

A: I believe that they are garnering his wages, that's my impression, and that the dealers get very small checks every month or every few months. I don't expect he will ever be able to pay everyone back.

Q: Is he still working as a landscaper on Martha's Vineyard? That's a tough way to pay for the high cost of island living, particularly for someone approaching 60 years of age.

A: That's the last I knew when I talked to him two years ago. I know he was applying for another job, I believe at the hospital, but I don't know whether he got it.

Q: As far as I can tell the only news about him lately is an article in an island paper on his art show, which you took in. He seems to have receded into the woodwork. Are you surprised by that?

A: It doesn't surprise me. He's really a conundrum. He's got so many different sides to his personality. Even when he was a map dealer, on the one hand, he liked to present himself as this jet-setter, this kind of prominent wealthy map dealer, but on the other hand he always maintained a low profile. He had a Yankee kind of reserve. He didn't advertise or do a lot of map shows or antique shows. He seemed to like to fly under the radar, and deal with a select few wealthy clients.

Q: His thefts changed the world of libraries and how they protect their collections; did he have a similar impact on the small community of map dealers and collectors and how they operate?

A: I think so to some extent. Certainly dealers I spoke to say they are more aware about checking for provenance now and not taking someone's word for it when they say they got a map from the proverbial "grandmother's attic." At the same time there is still a lot of secrecy in the profession. Dealers play their cards close to the vest. There's been some effort to create a more centralized list of stolen maps but that has gone nowhere.

Q: You write at one point about your interview with Smiley that he "seemed contrite." Do you believe he feels true remorse?

A: I did feel there was some genuine remorse there. I think he went through a lot in prison, that it was really rough on him and he did do a lot of soul searching. All his props were taken away, his money and status, all the things he used to charm people. I think he came to regret what he did, particularly to people like Alice Hudson [a former map librarian at the New York Public Library]. But it's still hard to read him; it's probably why he was so good at what he did. He is so charming. Perhaps I'm falling into the trap that others did.

Q: Was his compulsion to steal about control, and could it still be about control: Could he have controlled his mea culpa? Admitting something would be good for him, but admitting everything wouldn't be beneficial for him or his clients, who came out of all this fairly well.

A: That's what some people speculate, that he may have turned in map dealers but not his clients [as purchasers of his stolen maps]. You can say once you admit a certain number of maps why not admit all of them, that's the argument he made to me, 'why would I talk to you in the first place' if he was hiding something.

Q: Do you think he got off easy?

A: I don't think that's for me to say. I can certainly see both sides. There are people who say he stole millions worth of rare artifacts and got just three years in prison — that just for the sheer monetary value alone it seems worthy of a life sentence. On the other hand, he cooperated with authorities, and we want to set a precedent for future criminals to reward cooperation with a lesser sentence. There absolutely are people, like the librarians he victimized, who believe he got off easy.

Q: Has working on this book heightened your own interest in maps?

A: I bought one in the course of my reporting, a rare map of Boston in1775. I have always loved maps, looking at them, using them when I travel. But I never understood the degree to which they tell stories, how they capture the history of their time period. That was really compelling to me. I became even more of a map lover.