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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Map Miscreant

September-October 2006

Edward Forbes Smiley III, of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, was caught in June 2005 leaving Yale’s Beinecke Library with five of its rare maps in his briefcase and tweed jacket. A surveillance camera had captured him removing a map (valued at $150,000) from a book.

Following the announcement of Smiley’s arrest, the Harvard College Library “conducted an extensive assessment of its rare-map holdings,” according to Beth Brainard, its director of communications. Smiley, a well-known and respected dealer, had been allowed to use the library. “We discovered that 13 maps were missing. We made our losses known to the investigating authorities.”

On June 22, 2006, Smiley admitted in federal court in New Haven to having stolen 97 maps worth at least $3 million from seven institutions during the past seven and a half years. He had taken eight of them from Harvard’s Houghton Library, including the oldest of the bunch, a 1524 map of the New World by conquistador Hernán Cortés. (Harvard’s five other missing maps remain unaccounted for.) The admission was part of plea agreements; that day he pleaded guilty to one count of theft of a major artwork in federal court and three counts of larceny in state court. Sentencing is scheduled for September 21 and 22. He faces 57 to 71 months in prison on the federal charge, but how much time he serves may depend on what prosecutors say about his cooperation, without which they could have established his guilt in only 18 thefts. (He has agreed to serve a concurrent five-year sentence for his pleas in state court.)

Smiley sold most of his take to private collectors or other dealers. In June federal agents had 86 of the maps in hand; six maps had been located but not returned, and five were said to be unrecoverable.

Smiley, 50, studied church history and classics at Hampshire College and spent a year at Princeton Theological Seminary before he became a map dealer. He has said he will establish a restitution fund and to that end will sell his half interest in the Vineyard home and the property in Maine he and his wife own. Houghton anticipates the return of its eight maps after sentencing and will determine then what physical damage has been done.