Yale posts list of maps missing from its map collection


An early map of Boston that strategically highlighted the military positions of the Americans during the Revolutionary War is one of the great rarities that Yale University has discovered missing from its map collection in a long-awaited inventory released this week.

"A Plan of Boston in New England with its Environs," drawn by British loyalist Henry Pelham during the 1775-76 siege of Boston, appears on a list of lost maps that Yale has posted on the Internet to alert map dealers and collectors who might stumble across them. The Pelham map of Boston is worth $100,000 or more.

"If we're extremely fortunate, maybe these items will turn up," said Alice Prochaska, Yale's head librarian. "Keeping the community informed is good for all of us."

Yale began to take stock of its map collection last summer after E. Forbes Smiley III, a map dealer from Martha's Vineyard, was caught on a security camera tearing a colorful world map from an atlas in Yale's rare books library. The inventory was finished in February, but Yale withheld the results, waiting for the FBI to finish investigating.

Last month, Smiley confessed to taking nearly a hundred maps from Yale and other institutions, clearing the way for Yale to release its list of lost maps. Versions of seven maps on the list also appear on Smiley's Web page as "for sale" or "sold," including the Pelham map of Boston.

Libraries have historically kept incidents of theft hushed, afraid of copy-cat crimes and of scaring off wealthy patrons wishing to donate material. But for more than a decade now, experts in library security have advocated publicizing thefts quickly and widely. Ken Sanders, a bookseller in Salt Lake City, calls it "poisoning the well." The more people who know that an item has been stolen, the harder it is to unload.

"Get the word out to as many people as possible if the goal is to recover the material and apprehend the thief," said Sanders, former head of the security committee for the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America's. "You've got to swallow your pride and get over the embarrassment."

Last fall, Yale fired its longtime map curator and started digging through its collection on the top floor of Sterling Memorial Library. Over several months, librarians cross-checked card catalog records against stacks of maps. By the project's end, between 90 and 95 maps were confirmed missing. Some include the colonial American maps that Smiley specialized in. But a smattering of early maps of Japan and Russia also turned up lost, along with American maps worth only a few hundred dollars.

Yale posted the most valuable maps on its library Web page Wednesday and sent a copy to the booksellers' association for its "stolen books" database. Yale said that it does not suspect Smiley of taking any of them. "The FBI did a very meticulous and painstaking job establishing what was taken and I'm not questioning that," said Prochaska.

Maps, like books, are published in multiple copies. Yale was able to prove that it owned the first issue of John Seller's 1676 map of New England by comparing a photo of the map, and its distinct coloring, against a picture of the map displayed on Smiley's Web page. In his description of the $75,000 map, Smiley brazenly mentioned the Yale copy but mischaracterized it as an "uncolored copy."

Yale is missing versions of other maps that Smiley has posted on his website, but the FBI apparently found no proof that they belong to Yale. One map, an early engraving of Pennsylvania drawn by surveyor Thomas Holme, is splashed across Smiley's homepage with an asking price of $60,000.

Smiley's lawyer, Richard Reeve, said that his client aided the FBI to the fullest extent possible and chalked up the missing Sterling maps that appear on his client's website as coincidence. "It's really unfortunate that Yale has lost or misplaced or had stolen so many maps," he said. "I don't believe any of those maps are connected to Forbes Smiley."

By making its list public, Yale has set a precedent among the libraries that inventoried their collections after Smiley's arrest. If other libraries follow, it could bring about a sea change in how maps are bought and sold, as dealers and collectors start to insist on proof of clear title.

New York map dealer Harry Newman bought an early map of Boston from Smiley without knowing that the Sterling Memorial Library's copy was lost. Although Newman advertised the map nationally in a catalog shipped to Yale, no one connected the dots.

"This is what we need," he said. "If you realize something is missing, don't keep it quiet, let us know."

William Reese, a New Haven bookseller who advised Yale during the Smiley investigation, said that institutions have a moral obligation to publicize theft. "The more institutions make people aware of these problems, the further we come to solving them," he said. "The vast majority of people are selling maps conscientiously, but we have to understand that potential thieves like Forbes Smiley are at work. Anyone shopping in these markets has to be conscious of provenance."

Among map dealers, Smiley took the unusual step of displaying the maps he had already sold, as bragging rights, a cheap form of advertising or both. On his Web page, he claims to have sold Pelham's 1776 map of Boston for $110,000. Yale says the Pelham map that it is missing was published a year later, although it is possible that the date is wrong because many of Yale's catalog records were written before the wave of map scholarship over the past 30 years.

The other maps that Smiley handled that appear on Yale's list include a 1676 British map of the American colonies, sold for $70,000; a 1775 Bernard Romans map of Boston, sold for $65,000; a 1773 British map of South Carolina, sold for $55,000; and a 1793 map of Washington, D.C., sold for $32,000. Two maps listed "for sale" also show up on Yale's list - the Holme map of Pennsylvania and a later map of the state drawn by Reading Howell.

Smiley has admitted to stealing 97 rare maps worth more than $3 million from various institutions. He faces up to six years in federal prison when sentenced this fall.

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