By LILLIAN THOMAS
August 16, 2005
The Philadelphia-based FBI art crime team issued an alert this month to institutions that hold rare maps in their collections, advising them to determine whether they were missing any, and soon libraries from Chicago to London were reporting that they were.
E. Forbes Smiley III, a Massachusetts-based dealer in antique maps, has been charged with stealing rare maps by cutting them from books in Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. A librarian spotted a blade on the floor of the reading room this summer. A Yale detective followed Smiley out of the library and asked if the blade belonged to him.
According to an affidavit filed in Connecticut Superior Court, Smiley replied, "Yes, it is. I must have dropped it," and then, inexplicably, added, "I have a cold."
In Smiley's briefcase and pockets, the detective found several rare maps, together valued at $878,000. He pleaded not guilty last week and is due back in court Oct. 3.
This isn't the first case of rare-book slasher thefts. A former landscape gardener named Peter Bellwood systematically and repeatedly pillaged the National Library of Wales over a period of months in 2000 by cutting maps out of books with a hobby knife and sticking them down his pants.
But the notion that an act more associated with thoughtless college students than savvy thieves could allow theft of rare and valuable items has roiled the community of scholars and collectors bound together by their fascination with maps.
Maps tucked into books are especially vulnerable, said Tony Campbell, former map librarian at the British Library who also worked as an antiquarian map dealer.
"If you take a page out of a rare book, you've got a worthless piece of paper. But if you take a map, you haven't destroyed its worth. It's likely to have fair amount of value, and it's virtually untraceable. That's the joy of it for the thief."
The theft can be hard to detect. "That book is handed to someone, then handed back with one folded map removed," Campbell said.
Unless the librarian is aware that there are maps inside the book, and knows how many, a theft can easily go undetected.
"Now all the libraries, not just in North America, are scurrying around, scrabbling about, looking to see whether those books lost their maps," Campbell said.
The FBI art crime team is investigating whether Smiley has taken maps from the Newberry Library in Chicago, the British Library in London and the Boston Public Library.
The fact that thefts can go undetected for years is one of the aspects of this type of crime that makes it difficult to fight. It might seem basic that a library should know what it has and whether something is missing, but it's not that simple.
"We have about 30,000 boxes of archival materials. That's excluding the thousands of books we have," said Michael Dabrishus, assistant director of libraries for archives, special collections and preservation at the University of Pittsburgh. "Even within a box, there may be (up to) 3,000 pieces of paper or other items. Trying to do inventory would be quite time consuming."
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