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Brazen con artists lift priceless documents from archives and rob Americans of their past.

During the past three decades, Barry Landau cultivated a reputation as the nation’s foremost presidential memorabilia collector. He attended state dinners for Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and boasted that he possessed more than a million historical documents and artifacts, “including 26,000 presidential menus and invitations and the original key to the White House.” In 2007 he displayed  much of his museum-quality collection in a lavishly illustrated book, The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy, which featured cover blurbs from two legendary White House insiders. Henry Kissinger, Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, wrote: “Landau escorts the reader to the Head Table.” The esteemed historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a confidant of John F. Kennedy, added: “Barry Landau weaves previously missing links of Presidential history into a fascinating tapestry and narrative of Presidential lore.”

Landau frequented numerous historical archives on the East Coast and walked into each as if he owned the place. On July 9, 2011, he visited the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore with his 24-year-old associate, Jason Savedoff, and presented a long list of archive files he said he wanted to examine for a new book he was writing. But the breezy manner in which Landau, then 63, went about his research made the staffers who delivered the documents suspicious. “Landau repeatedly stood between the special collections desk and the table where Savedoff was working to obscure our staff’s line of sight,” says Patricia Dockman Anderson, director of library services at the historical society. “He was being a little too schmoozy and distracting, so our archivist decided to move to the library’s balcony to get a better view. From there, he saw Savedoff slip a document into his own papers.”

The archivist immediately called police, who detained Landau and Savedoff and found 60 documents from the historical society hidden among their personal belongings in a museum locker, most notably a ticket to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment hearing and a land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln. There were also 19 items from other historical libraries in the stash. Within 48 hours, FBI agents descended on Landau’s Manhattan apartment and discovered 10,000 documents, the majority of which were stolen from half a dozen institutions, including papers signed by George Washington, John Adams, John Jay, John Hancock and Alexander Hamilton. One of the most precious was a letter sent by Benjamin Franklin from France on April 1, 1780, to John Paul Jones in reference to the delivery of gunpowder from the French to the U.S. Navy. Another was the personal reading copy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1937 inaugural address, its pages still marked by the rain that fell during the ceremony.

Landau and Savedoff both pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy and theft of historical documents from museums in four states; Landau was sentenced to seven years in jail and Savedoff to 12 months. The scope of their crimes was astounding. But what is even more troubling is that it was not an isolated case. National Archives Inspector General Paul Brachfeld, who heads an archives investigative team that works closely with the FBI to recover stolen papers and artifacts, readily admits that theft is all too common at his institution and other historical libraries. Brachfeld sums up the archivists’ core challenge with a line from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”: “‘Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.’ That lyric says it all because there’s not a library or archive out there that has an item-level inventory. Sorting through the evidence in the Landau thefts, we unearthed papers belonging to institutions that didn’t know they were missing. The incredible size of their holdings has become a boon for thieves.”

Especially for determined thieves like Landau who are accomplished con artists. “Someone who has no qualms about stealing and who loves historical documents more than anything in the world has got to feel as though he’s struck gold when he walks into an archive,” says Park Dietz, a prominent forensic psychiatrist and criminologist. “He doesn’t have to be a safecracker or an armed robber. He simply has to be friendly to an archivist and left alone for a bit. The treasure is there for the taking.”


THE DOCUMENT COLLECTIONS at most historical archives are so vast that they’re impossible to catalog in any detail, making the theft of individual articles difficult to detect. Even with computer databases searchable by names, dates, subjects and call numbers, search results are often vague summaries of boxes that hold hundreds of letters. Countless times these containers go back to the vault with a document missing, and archivists have to rely on sheer luck to catch a thief. James Brubaker is a case in point.

In February 2006, a librarian at Western Washington University’s Wilson Library saw Brubaker perusing the Congressional Serial Set, a collection of government reports that date back to the early 1800s. The librarian thought it odd how carefully Brubaker watched those around him. When she approached, he merely smiled and asked her where he could get a good cup of coffee. That was the last she saw of him.

The following week the librarian noticed several volumes of the Congressional Serial Set piled on the wrong shelf. Scores of pages had been cut from their bindings. “If Brubaker hadn’t misplaced those books, we wouldn’t have known that we’d been hit,” says Rob Lopresti, government information librarian at the Wilson Library. “It turned out that he had stolen over 600 pages—mostly maps and illustrations—from 100 of our books and was selling them through his eBay store, Montana Silver.”

After a lengthy investigation, federal agents arrested Brubaker in 2008 and seized 20,000 maps, lithographs and prints, and 800 books stolen from 100 libraries. Brubaker had been chillingly methodical in carrying out his crimes, employing rare-earth magnets to disarm security sensors and various inks and fine-grained sandpapers to alter or erase library stamps and seals. He received two and a half years in prison and an order to pay $23,000 in restitution, the majority to Western Washington University. Lopresti says they’ve yet to see a penny of it.

“Odds are we’ll never get the money,” he remarks. “All the same, things could have been worse. Our staff was on the ball, and Brubaker happened to slip up. He’d still be out there stealing had circumstances been different.”

Some of the most audacious thefts of historical documents during the last decade have been inside jobs. In 2002, Shawn Aubitz, a National Archives staffer, was sentenced to 21 months in prison for amassing a trove of pilfered documents from the archives’ Philadelphia branch: 71 presidential pardons signed by James Madison, Zachary Taylor, James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln; 24 papers regarding land grants and the slave trade; and 316 photographs snapped by astronauts in space and on the moon. Six years later at the same Philadelphia branch, Denning McTague, a 40-year-old intern, stole 165 Civil War papers that included telegrams pertaining to gunpowder, guns and swords for Union troops as well as an official order from the War Department announcing the death of President Lincoln. Like Aubitz, McTague was caught selling his plunder on eBay. He told his psychiatrist he was angry the internship was unpaid. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison.

In 2010, the FBI arrived with a moving truck at the Rockville, Md., residence of retired archivist Leslie Waffen and seized 5,000 rare audio recordings that he had stolen throughout his 40-year tenure at the archives. Estimated at nearly $83,000, his thefts included the original master copy of a 1937 interview with Babe Ruth and Herbert Morrison’s moment-by-moment coverage of the Hindenburg disaster. Waffen, who, ironically, delivered ethics lectures to new hires, was the former chief of the Motion Picture, Sound and Video Recording Division of the National Archives—home to precious artifacts such as Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm footage of the Kennedy assassination. Waffen received 18 months in prison.


TO UNDERSTAND the psychology that drives this type of crime, you first have to consider the phenomenon of collecting,” says Park Dietz, who has taught forensic psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the UCLA School of Medicine and served as a forensic consultant in the high-profile cases of John Hinckley Jr., Jeffrey Dahmer, the Unabomber and the D.C. snipers. “Serious collectors usually have a topical focus; it could be Civil War papers, presidential memorabilia, the finest Swiss watches. They tend to be very passionate about what they collect, and they derive a great sense of satisfaction from acquiring more of it.”

Dietz is quick to point out that by itself this impulse is hardly criminal. But the archetypal rare-documents thief is an obsessive collector as well as an inveterate con artist. “The art of the con is central in crimes such as these because stealing historical documents hinges on gaining trust through deceit,” Dietz says. “In order to pull that off, you must be an effective liar and have both an utter disregard for the truth and a lack of conscience.

“Those individuals don’t have the feelings of apprehension that most of us would when committing a crime or doing something that we know is wrong,” Dietz adds. “Therefore, they have no inhibitions when it comes to stealing, and they have few if any of the physical tells when lying. Their demeanor seems normal.”

Landau is a textbook example. On a 2007 episode of C-Span’s Booknotes occasioned by the release of The President’s Table, Landau dazzled the audience with a slew of anecdotes about his brushes with presidential greatness. As a boy, he routinely visited President and Mrs. Eisenhower, had sleepovers with the Kennedy children, even played pranks on President Kennedy, putting powder on his pillow so he’d think he was turning gray. Although none of this was true, Landau delivered his recollections with a nonchalance that made them believable.

This same manipulative magic earned him the trust and esteem of archivists at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum, who went so far as to hold a promotional reception for The President’s Table. He thanked them by stealing seven reading copies of FDR speeches. Landau subsequently sold four of these documents to another collector for $35,000. Three other reading copies of the inaugural addresses, valued at more than $100,000 each, were later recovered at Landau’s New York apartment.

On March 3, 2011, Lee Arnold, an archivist at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, received an e-mail from a local rare-documents dealer asking about a one-page letter from George Washington to patriot General William Irvine dated February 3, 1781, and written by Washington’s aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, that online references indicated should have been in the society’s collection. “The person offering this to me is a reputable individual,” the dealer wrote. “But I wanted to check in with you before getting back to him.”

Sure enough, the letter was missing from the box where it should have been filed, but Arnold figured the seller might have unknowingly purchased it from a random thief. “So I asked the dealer if she would request that her anonymous seller return the document,” he says. Three days later, a FedEx package with no return address arrived for Arnold, who found a single piece of parchment carrying the familiar scrawl of Alexander Hamilton. The Washington letter had come home. Arnold did not press the dealer for the mystery seller’s identity. If he had, he would have learned it was Barry Landau, who had been in Arnold’s library many times.

After Landau was arrested in Baltimore four months later, the historical society banned coats, sweaters and folders in the reading room. In addition, entrances to restrooms are now locked, and to get a key you must check your belongings at the door. “These thefts have put the whole library community on edge,” says Arnold. “An archivist who once looked at every researcher as a person they could help now also has to look at him as a potential thief.”


THE NATIONAL ARCHIVES has a multimillion-dollar security system, but Inspector General Paul Brachfeld says that it is only the first step in deterring theft. “Institutions can set up an extensive network of internal controls to protect their holdings,” he explains. “They can have cameras, security checkpoints and searches, but thieves will still try to steal. My job is to make it hard, if not impossible, for them to move documents.”

To do that, Brachfeld and his documents-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. “We need members of the American public to be our sentinels,” says Brachfeld. “The public should be aware that thefts are occurring, and when a person does steal and attempts to trade historical documents, he should wonder if there are people who are watching him.”

For genealogists and researchers using an archive’s collection, this means keeping an eye on those around them. For sellers and collectors, it means looking for marks indicating that a document was once part of a museum’s or library’s holdings.

“I think that an innocence has been lost as a result of these crimes,” observes U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein, who prosecuted Landau and Leslie Waffen, the National Archives insider who stole thousands of historic wire and wax cylinder audio recordings. “The law takes this very seriously, especially in light of the fact that the people stealing the artifacts or documents should have been the ones protecting them.”

Five years after proclaiming himself a “caretaker” of American history on national television, Barry Landau sat beside his defense team in Baltimore’s U.S. District Courthouse, hoping to shorten his stint in federal prison. Clad in a neatly pressed pin-striped suit, Landau listened, his face drawn and expressionless as prosecutors outlined how he targeted specific documents and entered into hardnosed negotiations with dealers, selling off a stockpile of historic papers worth more than $1 million.

Judge Catherine Blake then offered Landau an opportunity to speak. He rose with the aid of a cane, paused theatrically and, in a tone devoid of emotion, read from a scrap of paper in front of the packed gallery. “Your honor, I am deeply ashamed of what I did,” he said. “I am embarrassed and troubled daily by my crimes.”

Before sending Landau to prison, Judge Blake quoted from the Maryland Historical Society’s impact statement, their words an irrefutable testament to the full consequence of his thefts.

“There is no more effective time machine than the papers in our collections, no clearer path to understanding and learning from the people of the past and of the world in which they lived. The voices of those who were there live in these documents, and their experiences shaped the nation. For the brief time we hold these rich and heavy textile-fiber papers or open a cracked and dusty leather-bound diary, our hands touch theirs.”

When thieves snatch documents from the country’s libraries and archives, they rob all Americans, present and future, of the stories those documents tell.


Michael G. Williams is a Maryland-based writer and journalist. His book City Under the Guns: An Untold Story from America’s Civil War, is due out in 2014.

Originally published in the April 2013 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.