Barry H. Landau, the once-esteemed collector of presidential memorabilia, admitted in federal court Tuesday that he stole thousands of documents regarded as cultural treasures from historical societies and libraries in Baltimore and up the East Coast.
The 63-year-old's guilty plea, to two criminal counts involving theft of artwork, revealed a scheme in which prosecutors said he compiled lists of items to steal by matching names of historical figures, from poets to president, to their "potential monetary value."
Prosecutors said the value of the stolen documents easily exceeded $1 million. One of 60 documents stolen from the Maryland Historical Society was an 1861 land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln to a former member of the Maryland militia who served in the War of 1812. It's worth $100,000, prosecutors said.
The oldest pilfered document was penned 533 years ago by Lorenzo de Medici during the Italian Renaissance. Among the most revered were three inaugural addresses delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the president's handwritten notes and corrections.
Neither Landau nor his attorney, Andrew C. White, addressed reporters outside the U.S. District Court in Baltimore. Landau arrived wearing a long black overcoat, using a cane and with a black patch covering his right eye. He told the judge he was taking prescription medicine to help him sleep, along with Lipitor and the anti-depressant Prozac.
Landau leaned on the cane and addressed the judge's questions with one- or two-word answers as he pleaded guilty to theft of major artwork and conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork. He faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced May 7.
Several employees of the Maryland Historical Society — where Landau's scheme unraveled in mid-2011 — watched the hearing. Ashley Harper, a digital collections assistant at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, stood outside the courthouse holding a sign: "You can't steal history."
Harper said she met Landau at least a half-dozen times and pulled boxes of documents for him. Among the items taken from the Pennsylvania archives, prosecutors said, was a 1788 handwritten proclamation by John Hancock regarding the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.
"It's pretty sad when things precious to a nation can be stolen," Harper said. "It was like hearing about the loss of a loved one."
Prosecutors and Landau's attorneys did not agree on a sentence, which will include paying restitution. His 24-year-old assistant, Jason James Savedoff, pleaded guilty to theft conspiracy in October and faces up to 15 years in prison. His sentencing was postponed in January; a new date has not been set.
Authorities said Landau used various means to distract librarians and staffers in four states, sometimes by offering cupcakes, but also by using aliases. He and his assistant concealed documents in secret pockets sewn into jackets, sandpapered off identifying markers and stole listings from card catalogs to make tracing the purloined papers more difficult.
The FBI found 10,000 papers and "objects of cultural heritage" during searches of Landau's apartment on West 57th Street in midtown Manhattan. Court documents say investigators traced 4,000 of the items "as being stolen from libraries and repositories throughout the United States."
Federal prosecutors have described the scope of the thefts as "truly breathtaking," with stolen documents that include an endorsement for a judge signed by George Washington, a letter written in French from Marie Antoinette, and an 1874 note from Karl Marx inquiring about the price of a book bearing his signature.
Some of the most significant thefts occurred in December 2010 from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., which is affiliated with the National Archives in Washington.
There, prosecutors said, Landau and Savedoff took seven "reading copies" — from which live speeches were read — of addresses given by Franklin D. Roosevelt, including those at his inaugurations in 1937, 1941 and 1945.
The 1945 address is a five-page document with a purple ribbon securing the pages through one of four hole punches. The document has Roosevelt's notes throughout, prosecutors said, and includes his signature and a scrawl from the president on the final page: "orig reading copy."
"These items are extremely valuable, and would be sold individually for sums well in excess of $100,000," federal prosecutors wrote in the plea agreement. "From a historical perspective, these reading copies of the inaugural addresses are priceless."
Among the most valuable documents stolen was a letter written in 1780 from Benjamin Franklin to naval hero John Paul Jones about gunpowder deliveries from the French. It is worth several hundred thousand dollars, according to prosecutors.