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FOUND: A 17th Century Map Stolen from a Library by a Notorious Art Thief

A copy of the map, from France’s National Library (Image: Wikimedia)

In 1612, the French explorer Samuel de Champlain mapped what Europeans then called “la Nouvelle France”—New France, the part of North America that’s now the coast of Maine and Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Newfoundland. 

The map he created is now capable of fetching hundreds of thousands of dollars among collectors. Over the summer, a copy was listed by a New York dealer for $285,000. The problem was, it had been stolen, the Boston Globe reports

Boston Public Library map curator Ronald Grim saw the listing and recognized that small tears on the map matched tears on one that had been missing from the library. After months of work and evaluation, it was agreed: this map belonged to the BPL. 

Most likely, the Nouvelle France was taken from the library sometime in the early 2000s by E. Forbes Smiley, a map collector and serial art stealer. In his heyday, Smiley was “gregarious, jolly, larger than life,” wrote Michael Blanding, the author of The Map Thief. “He spoke with the resonance of an Italian tenor mangled by a nasally WASPish affectation, and projected the air of a jet-setter.”

But he was also in debt, and in 2005 was arrested for stealing maps from a rare books library at Yale. He later confessed to stealing almost 100 maps from six different libraries. The BPL was one of his main sources. Its map collection was relatively unguarded, and like many public institutions, the library had trouble tracking everything in its collection; before Grim began work, the it had no map curator.

After Smiley’s confession, Grim inventoried the BPL collection, the Globe reports, and found 69 maps missing. Since then, dozens have been located, but 34 are still unaccounted for. The Nouvelle France map was not one that Smiley said he stole, “yet library records indicate he was the last person to view it, on Jan. 2, 2003, before it disappeared,” the Globe reports. 

The map is now back in the library, and will be on display through the winter.

Bonus finds: A 1930s letter to Santa, hidden in a chimneya new species of sand fly

Every day, we highlight one newly lost or found object, curiosity or wonder. Discover something unusual or amazing? Tell us about it! Send your finds to sarah.laskow@atlasobscura.com.