Published: October 3, 2006
In a crowded courthouse in New Haven on September 27, US District Judge Janet Bond Arterton sentenced confessed map thief Edward Forbes Smiley III to 42 months in prison and ordered him to pay more than $1.9 million in restitution to the libraries and dealers he defrauded during a stealing spree that spanned several years.
On January 4, the 50-year-old Chilmark, Mass., dealer will enter a minimum security unit of Fort Devens prison in central Massachusetts to begin his term, having agreed to spend the next several months helping the government wrap up the details in the case. Smiley is to be sentenced on state charges on October 13.
The case has stirred international media attention and roiled the antiquarian map field since Smiley’s apprehension after leaving Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven on June 8, 2005. But the conclusion of federal criminal proceedings on Wednesday did little to appease aggrieved institutions, who passionately denounced their former colleague and begged the judge to send a message of deterrence to future thieves. At the government’s urging, Judge Arterton reduced the sentence from a standard 57 to 71 months and chose not to fine Smiley, who has already begun liquidating his property to repay victims and will soon be bankrupt.
Calling the defendant “a serial thief on an industrial scale” and a “thief who assaulted history,” librarians argued that Smiley had damaged their institutions in myriad ways, violated public and professional trust, and drastically set back scholarship.
Their views contrasted sharply with those of the government, defense counsel and the court, who concurred that punishment should recognize Smiley’s substantial cooperation after being caught. The dealer, who had several maps in his possession when he was arrested, subsequently confessed to taking 98 maps from the New York and Boston Public Libraries, libraries at Yale and Harvard, the Newberry Library in Chicago and the British Library in London. The government could only prove that 18 of the maps were stolen, a consideration factored into the plea agreement.
The British Library was the most vehement in its remarks, asking the judge to lengthen Smiley’s prison term to as much as 97 months.
“Obviously, we are disappointed that our request for upward departure was denied and disappointed in the leniency of the sentence, which amounts to about 12 days imprisonment for every map that he has stolen,” said Dr Clive Field, the British Library’s director of scholarship and collections.
Smiley’s arcane knowledge was essential to the government’s recovery of 90 maps. Two more maps are in the possession of collectors and are being negotiated. Six maps are currently classified as unrecoverable.
“While I’ve met with many defendant cooperators in many cases, this defendant was one of the most organized. The defendant and the defense were extremely helpful,” Assistant US Attorney Christopher W. Schmeisser told Judge Arterton.
In his sentencing memorandum of September 20, Schmeisser touched on one of the case’s most sensitive questions: how the maps could have been stolen in the first place and why libraries often failed to notice that they were missing. Wrote the prosecutor, “On more than one occasion, a library asserted a map had been stolen by Smiley only to find the map a week or even several months later in the library’s collection. In a number of instances, the libraries found maps missing from volumes that Smiley had not accessed, suggesting again either cataloging problems or other thieves.” One factor complicating the investigation, said Schmeisser, was that none of the stolen maps, together worth as much as $3 million, was unique, except to the extent that distinct markings confirmed its removal from a particular book or atlas.
Schmeisser said that, from the beginning, the government’s priority was to recover as many maps as possible, a goal that had been substantially met. Libraries instead argued that, while many of the maps had been returned, their condition had forever been altered and valuable information lost when Smiley cut or tore them from books or atlases.
“Maps in Beinecke are not intended to be collectors’ items,” said Frank M. Turner of Yale, casting light on the sometimes opposing agendas of the academy and the marketplace.
Victim institutions repeatedly described the recovered maps as “mutilated,” an assertion questioned by the defense, the government and the court.
“I would not describe any of these maps as mutilated,” said defense counsel Richard A. Reeve. “Smiley had every reason to maintain these maps in the best condition because he was reselling them.”
Having examined the maps, Judge Arterton diplomatically concurred. “Nothing is obvious to the lay naked eye,” she said, adding, “The loss of provenance, symbols and signs of significance to scholars is indeed a loss.”
While the libraries have largely recovered their maps, the dealers who assisted the government in its recovery effort by buying maps back from collectors are not likely to be fully reimbursed. Said Schmeisser, “Several of these individuals are close to bankruptcy because they did not want their collectors to be harmed. They more than anyone will be financially harmed.”
“Your honor, I have hurt many people. I am deeply ashamed. I have caused great financial cost to institutions and dealers. I am very anxious to meet my obligations,” Smiley told the judge in a deep, halting voice.
After listening to all sides, Judge Arterton delivered her reply. Having examined the recovered artifacts, she said she “felt the awe” of “maps of such antiquity, much older than America, reflecting the timeline of knowledge.” She appreciated that “historians, scholars and people of curious intellect will understand more by having them in context and that, where they are taken apart, they will be diminished.”
Sentencing was “anything but easy,” she said, noting the court’s goal of deterring crime while encouraging the cooperation of defendants. In that, she said, it would be “counterproductive if not unfair” to use information readily supplied by Smiley against him.
She added, “When he leaves prison, he will have no assets, no career in the field he loves. He will be a pariah, he will lose years of liberty, and years with his young son. I don’t see that there is anything more that Mr Smiley could do.”
Why an avid bibliophile stole from institutions he admired remains one of the profound mysteries of the case against Edward Forbes Smiley III. Some insight was provided by Smiley himself, who said that he acted out of resentment or out of a misguided sense of entitlement, stealing maps after providing better versions to the same institutions. Stealing was also a way of paying his mounting bills after having heart surgery in the late 1990s, he said.
“Money cannot repay the institutions for the harm they suffered, but having the maps back is better than not having them at all,” concluded Schmeisser, suggesting that “a positive byproduct of this case is that many of the security lapses have been corrected, albeit at significant cost, time and effort by the institutions.”
“One lingering question,” said the assistant US attorney, was whether Smiley was “telling the whole truth but not the whole story. The government’s best assessment is that he is making the best effort to be truthful, but at the margin there may be a theft that he cannot recall and thus a map never returned.”
“Imprisonment will protect society from Mr Smiley, but I’m not sure that he is much of a threat anymore,” Robert Karrow said in the most eloquent summation of all. Smiley, said the curator of special collections and maps at The Newberry Library, made himself “a symbol of the vulnerability of libraries, a symbol of the fragility of the public trust that is required for the operation of our cultural institutions, a symbol of the commodification of historical artifacts, a symbol of the erosion of civility.”
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