Collector pleads guilty; admits stealing rare maps
NEW HAVEN, Conn. --A renowned dealer in antique maps admitted in federal court Thursday to stealing nearly 100 rare maps worth about $3 million in a case that sent librarians and investigators scurrying to review collections and recover stolen treasures.
E. Forbes Smiley III, 50, of Martha's Vineyard, Mass., pleaded guilty to one count of theft of major artwork in the theft of a map from Yale University. He admitted taking 97 maps over eight years from the New York and Boston public libraries, the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Harvard University library and the British Library in London. The oldest maps dated back to the 1500s and some are the first records of settlements, terrorities and discoveries in America, say experts.
"They are the most important maps imaginable," said Graham Arader, a map dealer based in New York.
One map was the first to show the name New England and another depicts the most accurate map of Louisiana after the Louisiana Purchase, Arader said. There also was a map from France, recognizing the United States for the first time, Arader said.
"They're all incredibly important because they all show new information for the first time," Arader said.
Smiley was released after posting $50,000 bond. He later pleaded guilty to three larceny charges in state court in the Yale thefts.
The federal charge related to a map of the world published around 1578. Other stolen maps depicted various states. Another was titled "Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America" from 1582.
"He's very sophisticated," Arader said. "He got things that were tremendously historically important, aesthetically at the very highest level, mint condition and quite rare."
Smiley faces nearly six years in prison on the federal charge and will have to pay restitution. The restitution amount has not yet been determined, but he does face a fine of up to $1.6 million for the federal charge, prosecutors said.
"It is in effect a decision by Mr. Smiley, having done very bad acts against people and institutions who he liked and has respected and worked with for a number of years, to make them whole for the damage he has done," said Smiley's attorney, Richard Reeve.
With Smiley's help, most of the maps have been recovered from dealers and galleries, a process U.S. Attorney Kevin O'Connor compared to a treasure hunt. Prosecutors said six maps have not been returned by those who have them and five others are lost.
"I want to commend the FBI, and all who assisted in this investigation, for scouring the globe at a great expense of time, effort and financial resources in order to return these stolen maps to their rightful owners," O'Connor said.
He said the case should serve as a warning to institutions that keep rare books, maps and other cultural artifacts on the importance of effective security.
Smiley was arrested a year ago after a librarian at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library found a razor blade on the floor. Police confronted Smiley, who had been reviewing rare books, and found seven maps worth nearly $900,000 in his briefcase and pockets, according to a police report.
"The maps are loosely bound into the books," Reeve said. "It's very easy to just wiggle them out of the book."
Smiley's arrest touched off an FBI investigation and agents sent an e-mail to the world's top map curators, asking them to review their collections and look for gaps.
"It's just incredible things of that value are so readily accessible in the libraries," said Kimberly Mertz, Connecticut's top FBI agent.
Smiley could face about five years in prison based on the state plea agreement, said New Haven State's Attorney Michael Dearington.
He is scheduled to be sentenced on the federal charge Sept. 21 and the state charge on Sept. 22.
Smiley, who attended Princeton Theological Seminary, plans to sell his homes on Martha's Vineyard and in Maine to pay the restitution, his attorney said. He said in court he has been seeing a therapist, but declined comment when leaving court.
Yale and other top map libraries reviewed their security procedures after Smiley's arrest.
Institutions began putting up cameras decades ago, but in some instances they fell into disuse, Arader said. And librarians are not by their nature suspicious, he said.
"He went after people whose whole reason for living is to help people," Arader said.