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Map Thief Sentenced in Federal Court

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Map Thief Sentenced in Federal Court


Map Thief Sentenced in Federal Court

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A respected scholar of rare maps is paying the price for stealing them. He's been sentenced in federal court in Connecticut for a seven-year crime spree.

Diane Orson reports from member station WNPR.

DIANE ORSON: On June 8th, 2005, E. Forbes Smiley III went to Yale University's Beinecke Library and asked to see a late 16th century atlas; it contained a map of the world, hand-colored with highlights in gold leaf. He found a quiet spot in the reading room, took out an X-acto knife blade, then cut the ancient map out of the book where it had been bound for more than 400 years.

Rare book dealer Bill Reese has known Smiley since the early 1980s.

Mr. BILL REESE (Rare Book Dealer): Forbes Smiley is a person who is tremendously knowledgeable about the areas of cartography that he has worked in, in particular. And in a way, this is what made him so dangerous.

ORSON: But Smiley slipped up. A Yale librarian spotted a razor blade on the floor and called security. Smiley was arrested later that day with antique maps worth hundreds of thousands of dollars in his brief case and in the pockets of his tweed blazer.

Dr. CLIVE FIELD (Director, British Library): The victims in this crime are clearly the libraries.

ORSON: Dr. Clive Field is the director of the British Library in London, where Smiley stole one of the earliest maps of America.

Dr. FIELD: Beyond that, however, I would say that the real victims of this are actually the peoples of the world. These are not just American maps, they're not just British maps, they are literally part of the testament of world civilization.

ORSON: Smiley admitted stealing 98 maps in all from libraries in Boston, New York, Chicago and London, valued at more than $3 million. He said he stole them to finance his expensive tastes. But once he was caught, he told the FBI where to find the missing maps. In many cases, the libraries didn't even know they were gone. Field says the case will likely change the way libraries operate.

Dr. FIELDS: People who are really interested in these maps may in the future not have the level of access that they should, simply because people like Mr. Smiley have effectively betrayed the trust on which libraries and their patrons have to operate.

ORSON: He also drove unsuspecting dealers into bankruptcy. Several dealers who sold the stolen maps voluntarily bought them back, so they could be returned to the institutions whose job it is to contain and preserve the world's history.

For NPR News, I'm Diane Orson in New Haven.

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