Historic theft: Case of the purloined letters

Our view: Alleged attempt to steal documents from Maryland Historical Society reflects a troubling national trend that few archives have the resources to combat

July 12, 2011

Even under the best of circumstances, archives lack airtight security. It's generally harder to get to the gate at the average airport than it is to gain access to the valuable historic documents stored and maintained by the hundreds, if not thousands, of U.S. universities and colleges, public libraries, nonprofit organizations and state archives.

Being able to browse these records, to read and touch history, is a privilege that many of us have long taken for granted. But no longer. What authorities have charged was an attempted theft of dozens of rare documents — including some signed by Abraham Lincoln — on Saturday at the Maryland Historical Society is a shocking reminder that the sanctity of such repositories can no longer be assumed.

Baltimore police report that two New York men tried to remove 60 artifacts worth potentially millions of dollars from the society's archives. The pair might have been successful had they not raised the suspicions of an employee who eventually observed one of them allegedly concealing a document in a portfolio and walking out.

That was fortunate, considering that workers at the historical society are far more accustomed to dealing with Marylanders trying to trace their roots or historians researching Baltimore's past than potential criminals looking to make a big score. For the historical society, this was a rarity. Unfortunately, document theft has grown increasingly common around the country in recent years — to the point that archivists have become alarmed.

There are likely numerous reasons for this. Rare documents have become more valuable as public interest in antiquities (and what historians call ephemera, like old posters, tickets or receipts) has expanded in the "Antiques Roadshow" era. The Internet and the rise of social networks have made it much easier for thieves to find potential customers without alerting authorities (although such transactions have sometimes been conducted openly at Internet auction sites, too).

It may also be a recognition by the greedy and unscrupulous among us that archives are far more vulnerable than most locations that house such valuable artifacts. And to address that, mere vigilance of employees may not be enough.

Over the last decade, there have been archival thefts in many of the major cities and even from the National Archives, which even now is advertising for public help in finding a multitude of missing documents. It isn't just patrons who take things; archival staff have sometimes been caught with purloined letters and other valuables, too.

One simple way to address the danger would be to greatly limit access. Keep these treasures under lock and key for almost nobody to see — or charge sizeable fees to visitors to cover the cost of heightened security. But that, of course, would represent a huge loss for the public that would be denied society's historical record.

A better solution might be to transfer more of these assets to digital form so that people can browse books, manuscripts, papers and ephemera on a computer screen without actually having the original materials present. But that takes manpower and money — something many nonprofits that depend on donations and the support of volunteers don't have in abundance these days.

In the meantime, prosecutors and the courts need to set an example. Should Barry H. Landau and Jason Savedoff, the two men arrested in the Maryland theft, be found guilty, their punishment ought to be substantial and commensurate with the seriousness of their crime.

The $50,000 fine given Samuel "Sandy" Berger, the former national security advisor who was found with classified documents from the National Archives stuffed in his sock in 2003, now seems wholly inadequate given the nature of the offense. The only thing likely to deter future thefts is a jail sentence of sufficient proportion that such history lovers can invest their talents into cataloging books and magazines in the prison library.

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