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STOLEN TREASURES
The Case of the Missing Maps

09/28/06

One of the maps that was stolen and later recovered. Courtesy of the Beinecke Library.

In prestigious libraries around the world, dozens of rare maps—often hundreds of years old—were mysteriously disappearing one by one without a trace. The thefts went unsolved—and in most cases, undetected—for more than seven years.

Until one day last June when a quick-thinking Yale librarian turned up the culprit.

Here’s how it happened: one morning, the head of public services for Yale University’s Beinecke Library in New Haven, Connecticut, happened to spot an X-Acto knife blade on the floor. It made the librarian nervous, of course—especially since she found the blade in the rare documents room of the library.

Instantly, she looked around and noticed a man in the stacks. “I can get his name from our sign-in register,” she thought. She found it: Edward Forbes Smiley III. On a hunch, she searched the Internet to see if his name came up. It did. Smiley was a well-known rare maps dealer. Mmmm, suspicious. The librarian called security, and it wasn’t long before Smiley was caught red-handed with seven maps, including a nearly 500-year-old treasure worth more than $150,000. He was arrested on the spot.

Yale officials suspected that Smiley had targeted other map collections and that he might have sold some of his “finds” overseas. So they called us. They were right: Smiley admitted stealing and selling 97 rare maps from numerous collections worldwide over the course of seven years. Their total value? An estimated $3 million.

Now, how to find them all? Smiley was able to lead us to most of the dealers and collectors who originally purchased them. But returning the maps to their libraries and the original books they were stolen from proved much more difficult.

“These maps aren’t vehicles with identification numbers stamped on them,” said FBI Special Agent Stephen J. Kelleher, who led the case out of our New Haven office. “And in most cases, they were trimmed so they didn’t even look like they came from books.” Complicating the issue was the fact that some of the maps had different titles—many in Latin—and could have come from several known copies of the same book.

As Smiley told us the libraries he targeted, we called them to see if the maps belonged to their collections. Many libraries weren’t even aware they were missing any items since they didn’t inventory their books frequently. The libraries have since improved their security and tracking.

To help confirm the identity of the recovered maps, we ended up relying on map experts, dealers, and even the collectors who bought the stolen goods. Some maps were more easily identified because the books had been damaged by worms, leaving holes “tantamount to fingerprints,” Kelleher said.

Success! After much painstaking work, we’ve recovered 86 of the maps. We couldn’t have done it, though, without the help of our law enforcement partners in the case: the Boston Police Department, Yale and Harvard university police departments, the New York Public Library Security Division, and Scotland Yard.

And justice has been served. On June 29, Smiley pled guilty to numerous charges of art theft. On September 27, he was sentenced to 42 months in prison and ordered to pay nearly $2 million in restitution. The court left the issue of restitution open in case more maps are found and identified.

Resources: Sentencing Press Release | FBI Art Theft Program