Stealing History

Posted July 24, 2012 at 3:59pm

A researcher approached the librarian’s desk with a box of doughnuts and a list of collections he wished to review. He looked through several items, including a land grant that was signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861, a document valued at more than $100,000.

Later that day, the police confiscated that land grant along with 59 other historical documents that were stored inside a computer bag and locked in a museum locker. Barry Landau and his co-conspirator, Jason Savedoff, were found guilty of the thefts, and Landau was sentenced a few weeks ago.

In the wake of this case and a handful of other similar incidents during the past several years, archival institutions are beefing up security to ensure that priceless documents and rare books remain secure but still available to the public. 

“The best defense is an integrated response,” said Paul Brachfeld, inspector general of the National Archives who has handled high-profile theft cases during his tenure. 

Brachfeld wrote the report that outlined the misdeeds of President Bill Clinton’s former national security adviser, Sandy Berger, who stashed classified documents related to the 9/11 investigation under a trailer after removing them from the National Archives. (Berger subsequently pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified information.)

Brachfeld was also part of the investigation that brought well-known presidential memorabilia collector Landau to justice. Landau hid documents in the pocket of his sport jacket, which was specifically tailored to hide the documents. 

Among the thousands of documents stolen by Landau from collections up and down the East Coast were copies of FDR’s inauguration speeches (from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in New York, an affiliate of the National Archives) that had the president’s handwritten notes and corrections on them.

“We caught him with 60 of our documents and 19 from other institutions,” said Pat Anderson, director of publications and library services at the Maryland Historical Society, where Landau and Savedoff were caught. 

Anderson would talk about some of the changes made in response to the thefts, but she didn’t want to get too specific, for fear of giving away secrets that future thieves might take advantage of.

But one change is pretty obvious.

“We no longer allow jackets in the reading room,” Anderson said. 

The Best Defense

Brachfeld said there is a three-step process to protect documents, and it starts with identification. 

“We have to identify if something is missing,” Brachfeld said. “We have billions of documents. Thieves take stuff you never know is missing. Some of the stuff hasn’t been looked at in 30 to 50 years.” 

He also relies on the public. 

“We have agents do undercover buys at trade shows. People are going to steal to make money,” Brachfeld said. 

The National Archives also has a holding-protection team that’s staffed by three security specialists, one trainer and a team leader. 

“Due to operational security we cannot share all of the changes,” team leader Eric Peterson wrote in an email. 

But here’s what the Archives did share: It has installed public-view camera monitors at the Archives in downtown Washington, D.C., and in College Park, Md.; increased security-camera monitoring; developed mandatory exit screening of visitors and employees at their archive facilities; and improved collaboration and communication among researchers, archivists and other agencies.

“If there’s reason to think that there might be a problem, we communicate with each other,” Anderson said.

And they’re not afraid to go public.

“We want as much press coverage as possible, letting people know that there is a wolf in the hen house,” Brachfeld said.

Knowing what you have and who is interested in it is also crucial.

“The best defense is having good descriptive records of your own,” said Stephen Enniss, head of the Eric Weinmann Library at the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Folger houses vast collections of rare books and manuscripts of early modern English history. 

“The more someone is actually known to you and you know who is using [the resources] gives you a paper trail,” Enniss said. “We maintain circulation records. It allows you to reconstruct who was the last user.”

Researchers must register before viewing anything from their rare book collection. “If the reader is not known in the scholarly world, then we still ask for letters of reference,” Enniss said of the library’s vetting process. 

And then there’s the hardware.

The Folger has an underground vault that protects some of its most precious records, including 82 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio. Users must put in a request, or a “page,” for the book from the vault. After the material is paged, a staff member works with the user directly. “No one works with the rare materials alone,” Enniss said. 

See Something, Say Something

The recent thefts gained some notoriety, but thefts of historical documents have plagued archives and libraries for as long as archives and libraries have existed.

In some cases, stolen items are never recovered. 

In 1990, people disguised as policemen stole $300 million worth of art from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Works by Rembrandt and Degas have never been recovered. 

Congress even got into the act.

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) pushed the Theft of Major Art Work law through Congress in 1994, making it a federal offense to obtain by theft or fraud any object of cultural heritage from a museum. 

That’s the statute Landau and Savedoff were prosecuted under.

In 2008, Raymond Scott brought a 17th-century book to the Folger and asked the library’s authentication experts to certify that the book he found was one of Shakespeare’s First Folios. It was authenticated, but the certifying committee knew that there were only 232 copies in the world, and they were all accounted for. 

“It was stolen from the Durham University in the UK,” Enniss said. An information-sharing system with other institutions has since been put in place, and there have been no major instances of theft since.

Each institution stresses the importance of staying vigilant against theft and asks the public to say something, if they see something.

“We show up where a lot of people don’t show up,” Brachfeld said. “We maintain a Facebook page to reach out to the public to let them know that their history is at risk. And to let them know that we are trying to address this threat.”