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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Do You Prefer the Map Thief in the Wikipedia or the Forger's Autobiography?

In 2005 a map dealer, E. Forbes Smiley III, was caught stealing maps from Yale's Beinicke Library, leading to an investigation proving that he had stolen maps from numerous institutions, and that he had sold them to various unsuspecting dealers and clients. In everyone's best interests except Smiley's, the case received a great deal of publicity during 2005 to 2007, leading to increased security at some rare book libraries. A well-known expert on early maps, Smiley's M O was to study early atlases and travel books in rare book libraries and reading rooms, and-- when nobody was looking--razor out individual maps and sneak them out concealed in his clothing. When he returned the volume to the librarian he knew that the removal of a thin leaf or two from a bound volume would not be noticeable. Through this scheme, which went undetected for several years, Smiley was able to sell, often at comparatively reasonable prices, some of the world's rarest and most desirable maps. His arrest and conviction brought him jail time, demands for restitution, and notoriety that he did not desire, including a good, objective article in the Wikipedia.

Is the crime of theft that much different than the crime of forgery? Recently the biographer and forger of literary autographs, Lee Israel, published a brief (127pp.) self-aggrandizing autobiographical account of her escapades entitled Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger. Most probably the institutional libraries, dealers, and scholars she conned cannot forgive her. However, the New York Times reviewer, Thomas Mallon, seems understanding about the human aspects of these admittedly interesting literary crimes. Certainly the publishers, Simon & Schuster, must have felt that there was a ready market for this story. Will a film be in the works?

After posting the above a much more objective review of Lee Israel's book in the Los Angeles Times came to my attention. The reviewer, Jonathan Shapiro, a former federal prosecutor, is an adjunct law professor at USC and a co-executive producer on the NBC television drama "Life." To Shapiro " 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?' is an entertaining read that showcases Israel's many gifts as a writer, as well as her tragic defects as a human being. Caveat emptor: It is the work of a self-confessed liar."

UPDATE: On August 17, the New York Times published the following letters concerning the literary forgeries of Lee Israel:

To the Editor:

As a biographer, no, I cannot ever forgive Lee Israel, the author of “Can You Ever Forgive Me? Memoirs of a Literary Forger” (Aug. 3). The letters she forged make a mockery of writers’ attempts to seek out the truth when researching books. But Israel gets a Simon & Schuster contract for her crimes and thinks the whole thing is “a big hoot.” As for me, I’d like to see her head on a pike in front of the New York Public Library, as a warning to others.

Eve Golden
Lyndhurst, N.J.

To the Editor:

As the dealer who approached the F.B.I. with his suspicions regarding Lee Israel’s forgeries and theft of rare letters from Columbia University, and who participated in the operation that caught her, I am appalled by the tone of the press coverage her book has received. Among the forgers mentioned in your review could be added the name of Mark Hofmann, the 1980s forger of Mormon historical documents, who not only defrauded dozens of dealers and betrayed his co-religionists but murdered several people to conceal his crimes. Maybe he, too, will write a “pretty damned fabulous book” about his “misadventures.” Betrayal, greed and immorality are not so amusing to the scholars, collectors, dealers and institutions Israel hurt.

David Lowenherz
New York

posted by Jeremy Norman @ 8:56 AM   4 Comments


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