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A new kind of detective on the job

The nation’s Archival Recovery Team strikes at document thieves

Created date

August 21st, 2012

For most, it was the perfect day. Wednesday, June 27, brought sunny skies to the city of Baltimore. But inside courtroom 7D of the U.S. district courthouse, New York native and self-confessed thief Barry Landau wasn t enjoying any of it. Before imposing his sentence, Judge Catherine Blake offered Landau an opportunity to speak. Clad in a neatly pressed pinstriped suit, he rose slowly with the aid of a cane, paused theatrically, and, in a mea culpa tone, read from a scrap of paper in front of the packed gallery. Your honor, I am deeply ashamed of what I did .I am embarrassed and troubled daily by my crimes. The crimes to which Landau referred were collectively perhaps the largest theft of historical documents on record. On July 9, 2011, Landau and his accomplice, Jason Savedoff, visited the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, where they presented archivists with a list of documents that Landau wanted to use for a book he claimed to be writing. Shortly after granting the two access, however, library staff became suspicious that they were doing more than reading. Landau repeatedly put himself between the special collections desk and the table where Savedoff was working to obscure our staff s line of sight, recalls Patricia Dockman Anderson, director of library services at the historical society. Landau was being a little too schmoozy and distracting, so our archivist decided to position himself on the library s balcony to get a better view. From here, he saw Savedoff slip a document into his own papers. The archivist immediately called police, who detained and searched the men. What they found astounded them.

Stolen treasure

In their possession were 60 documents from the historical society s collection, including a land grant signed by President Abraham Lincoln. Also tucked in their papers were 17 similar examples of letters and ephemera that they had stolen from other libraries. When federal authorities searched Landau s Manhattan apartment two days later, they discovered 10,000 documents pilfered from half a dozen institutions over a span of several years. The total value extended well into the millions, with some items, like the reading copy of President Franklin Roosevelt s 1941 inaugural address, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars alone. Though Landau s story shocked the public, it s a tale all too familiar to National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Inspector General Paul Brachfeld. Unfortunately, people have been stealing rare documents for about as long as there have been archives, he laments. When I came to the National Archives 12 years ago, we didn t have the personnel to deal specifically with thefts from our holdings. It was the 2002 case of Shawn Aubitz an archivist in charge of the special collections at the Philadelphia branch of the National Archives that gave Brachfeld his first taste of archival theft on a large scale. Federal officials charged and convicted Aubitz for stealing 71 presidential pardons, 24 documents related to land grants and the slave trade, and 316 photographs snapped by astronauts in space and on the moon. In order to recover those items and help prevent future thefts from occurring, Brachfeld started the Archival Recovery Team, a group of specially trained archivists with investigative skills geared toward tracking down stolen items from the national repository s vast collection. As a unit, the Archival Recovery Team wears a number of hats, Brachfeld explains, one of which is performing audits of NARA collections that have been hit by thieves. Once we ve been notified of a theft in our holdings, it s a tremendous amount of work just to go through that collection and determine what s been taken and what remains. These audits also include a detailed, item-level analysis of evidence recovered following the arrest of thieves such as Landau and Aubitz, especially paper trails from the sale of stolen documents. Still, these searches can take years. A decade has passed since the Aubitz thefts and, according to Brachfeld, half of the stolen artifacts remain missing.

Enlisting the public s help

Indeed, while audits are an essential step in the team s investigative and recovery efforts, Brachfeld emphasizes the importance of public awareness. Institutions can set up an extensive network of internal controls to protect their holdings, he explains. They can have cameras, security checkpoints, searches they can do it all. But at the end of the day, thieves will try to steal, and I want to make it hard, even impossible, for them to move documents. To do that, Brachfeld and the Archival Recovery Team have made it a priority to take their mission to the people, giving talks and instructional seminars at collector shows, conventions, libraries, and historical societies around the country. I want members of the American public to be our sentinels, says Brachfeld. For those genealogists and researchers using an archive s collection, this means keeping an eye on those around them, he adds. For rare document collectors, it means looking for marks on an item that may indicate that it was once part of a museum s or library s holdings. But for all of the vigilance in the world, there will always be historical document thieves who get away with stealing, at least for a time. Back in courtroom 7D of the U.S. district courthouse in Baltimore, Barry Landau s days of plundering libraries and museums were at an end. After listening to a brief statement of apology that smacked more of regret than remorse, Judge Blake informed 64-year-old Landau that he would spend the next seven years of his life in prison. She hoped that his fate would send a clear message to those who might otherwise follow in his footsteps. For a list of stolen documents still missing from the National Archives,