The Map Thief by Michael Blanding

Genre: biography
Secondary genre: history, heist
Format read: audiobook
Rating: planchet

Fans of Catch Me If You Can and White Collar might fight my next selection interesting.

The Map Thief is a biography of a dealer in antique maps turned con man. E. Forbes Smiley didn’t start out dealing maps, but rather fell into it through his interest in history.

For about twenty years he was above board and well respected, but then his high living finally caught up to his checkbook, and he started stealing from the libraries and museums he’d helped establish.

The case was huge, impacting American laws regarding cultural patrimony (that is, things of historical and cultural value that may or may not have a high monetary value). As someone trained in art history, restoration, and conservation, it was a fascinating read from that perspective.

Sadly, if this were a fictional account I’d say it was poorly written with flat, unappealing characters. Smiley is just another mediocre, middle aged man who can’t handle his money or manage to show respect for others, thinking the world owes him something. Through the book he takes criticism poorly, lashes out at those who challenge him, and justifies the thefts through the fact that he helped establish most of the collections his maps came from. From a cultural preservation standpoint, I have a hard time imagining he was even a very good thief, cutting and tearing pages, folding them, and retouching with materials that weren’t historically accurate.

I won’t deny he was treated unfairly by the justice system after his arrest (though nonviolent, he was put in solitary for months at a time and denied basic hygiene), but all in all I thought the book was dull and it’s subject unsympathetic. The author’s last name says it all, really.

 

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