Theft case leaves additional documents at Maryland Historical Society

December 31, 2013|By Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Historical Society can thank document thief Barry H. Landau for some recent additions to its collection.

Landau's capture at the Baltimore institution sparked a multistate investigation that ended in his conviction for stealing 10,000 "objects of cultural heritage" from museums and historical societies all along the East Coast. But two years after his guilty plea, federal investigators say they still can't find rightful homes for more than 10 percent of those pieces.

Until the owners come forward, the documents will remain where the scandal erupted.

"It's a natural choice," said Patricia Dockman Anderson, the historical society's director of publications and library services. She called the documents — relics from the Kennedy administration and other presidential memorabilia — "the orphan collection."

Landau and his assistant, Jason James Savedoff, were arrested at the Baltimore society in July 2011 after employees there noticed them sliding documents into notebooks before attempting to carry them out in specially tailored coats.

Investigators would collect evidence valued at $2.5 million from Landau's Manhattan apartment in a case that led museums throughout the country to overhaul their security. The FBI and the National Archives and Records Administration have been working to determine who owns all of the items.

"Final disposition of the items reflects the best efforts to place them with their home institution," FBI Special Agent Matt Kazlauskas said in an email. "Unfortunately, not every item could be successfully traced to its place of origin."

Many of the items were difficult to place because they lacked identifying information. Court documents said Landau and Savedoff would "perform surgery" to remove markings that linked the documents to their owners.

They would mark documents with "W2," short for Savedoff's code name, "Weasel 2." Landau referred to himself as "Weasel 1," according to court documents.

Landau, 65, is at a medium-security federal prison in North Carolina, serving a seven-year sentence. Savedoff finished serving a one-year prison sentence in November.

Before the unclaimed items came to Baltimore in August, they were kept at the National Archives in College Park.

"The Maryland Historical Society agreed to house the untraceable items with the understanding that properly documented identification of those items would result in their return to that entity," Kazlauskas said.

The new additions to the Maryland Historical Society include black-and-white photos from John F. Kennedy's administration, along with a pair of weighty medals attached to red, white and blue ribbons from President Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1993.

Because many of the items were unmarked, volunteers at the historical society must research the items to determine their significance.

For example, photos found in a gray box marked 17 show a musician bowing before a seated crowd in a formal ballroom. One photo shows a relaxed-looking Kennedy perusing what appears to be a program as he reclines in a chair

The library staff has determined that the photos are from a 1961 performance featuring violinist Isaac Stern, held during a reception for the French prime minister. Nearby, Jacqueline Kennedy can be spotted in a long gown with long white gloves, her head turned so her dark bob obscures her face.

But researchers have found no information on other pictures that appear to be from the same event. In one photo, two men perform on a stage wearing turbans with large puffy feathers. Dockman Anderson said the library staff hasn't been able to determine what's going on in the photo.

The research would be easier "if we had 10 times more people," she said. "We have 7 [million] to 10 million documents in this library."

In a photo marked No. 7985, Jacqueline Kennedy appears in a belted dress and cap alongside Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, shaking hands with a couple. Dockman Anderson said researchers have not determined what the event was or who the couple are.

The research can be very time-consuming and often begins with simple Google searches, she said. Each article requires a different approach, she added.

Many of the unreturned pieces are 20th-century black-and-white photographs, "which is a nice balance for us," she said, since many of the society's items date from the 19th century.

In addition to the photographs are pieces of "ephemera" or memorabilia — including programs and tickets from historical events.

In a folder marked No. 9711, a brightly colored sheet reads, "Kennedy Johnson Inauguration 1961," with a picture of Kennedy and his vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson.

In folder No. 571 is a "Meet the Press" pamphlet bearing a typed transcript of an appearance by Kennedy.

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