Archivists scramble after men accused of stealing historic documents

Alleged theft from Maryland, elsewhere sparks search

August 16, 2011|By Jean Marbella, The Baltimore Sun

On an invitingly bright summer day, the reading room at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania starts filling up nonetheless as soon as the doors open: professors, Ph.D. candidates and amateur genealogists alike stream in to spend hours perusing the yellowed letters and faded land records, the presidential papers and everyday ephemera that are stored in the group's vaults.

While the staff continues to lend out such historic documents, it is with a warier eye now that the Philadelphia-based archive and others learn that they may have been victims of what investigators say was a veritable national treasure hunt by Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff to steal valuable artifacts.

Last month's arrest of the pair, on charges of stealing from the Maryland Historical Society and two New York institutions, has shaken the normally quiet, scholarly world of archives. Yet even as staffers scour holdings for any missing items, they say such artifacts must remain not under lock and key but be accessible to the public.

"It's our mission," said Lee Arnold, senior director of the Pennsylvania society's library and collections, "but it's also our dilemma."

As an archivist, Arnold believes that the letters, menus, diaries, deeds and other original records that visitors can hold in their hands tell the story of history in a way that can't be duplicated through copies or microfilm, or by viewing them from behind "10 sheets of glass."

Still, the arrests of Landau and Savedoff highlight that this benefit can come at great risk — in the Pennsylvania archives case, the loss, at least temporarily, of a letter signed by George Washington.

"We are good stewards," Arnold said as he lovingly displayed one of the society's treasures, an Underground Railroad journal that documented how Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape from Maryland. "We don't deserve two idiots like Landau and [Savedoff]. … We're not going to let it stop us."

While the journal is among the most precious of the society's holdings, and kept under "quadruple lock," most of the other 21 million items are available for viewing in the reading room by anyone who registers, provides photo identification and agrees to abide by lending policies.

That is what Landau and Savedoff did, Arnold said, during the 21 times between December 2010 and May of this year that they visited the society. They filled out 203 "call slips," requests to view collections that staff retrieved from the vaults.

The pair were memorable as something of an odd couple, Arnold and staff at other historical archives said: the rumpled 63-year-old Landau, a raconteur who presented himself as an expert on White House protocol and entertaining, and the 24-year-old Savedoff, who was introduced as a research assistant but seemed unclear on even the simplest library functions.

"He seemed not to grasp very basic concepts, but he was Barry Landau's research assistant?" said Rich Malley, head of collections at the Connecticut Historical Society, which prosecutors say may have also been targeted by the two. "He would have trouble with things, like operating a microfilm reader."

Even before Landau and Savedoff were arrested in Baltimore on July 9, they had raised Arnold's suspicions because of their multiple visits and the vague, shifting nature of their requests. Initially Landau and Savedoff asked to see presidential memorabilia, but later inquired about autograph collections.

"The staff and I had a meeting [and decided], let's keep a closer eye on them. We started challenging them, questioning them more," Arnold said, asking the pair why they were requesting items unrelated to what they originally said they were researching. "They were causing a lot of work for staff. It raised a red flag."

But once the staff started scrutinizing them more, Landau and Savedoff "just stopped showing up," Arnold said.

After the two were arrested, though, everything started to fall into place, he said. A manuscript dealer had called him earlier this year, saying someone tried to sell her a letter signed by Washington that she believed was part of the historical society's collection. Eventually, the letter was returned to the society, arriving anonymously in the mail, he said, and after the arrests in Baltimore, the dealer told him it was Landau who tried to sell the document.

Though the Washington letter is not part of the criminal case against Landau and Savedoff, the historical society has been working with federal investigators who say that the current charges may be expanded.

"We're going to look at all the documents they've sold, and we'll track this down," vowed Rod Rosenstein, the U.S. attorney for Maryland. "We're continuing to investigate the museums and historical societies they've visited."

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