Archivists scramble after men accused of stealing historic documents

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."

Landau, who has pleaded not guilty, is under electronic monitoring in his Manhattan apartment, and his defense lawyer in Baltimore, Andrew C. White, did not respond to a request for comment. Savedoff has been released on a $250,000 bond.

Landau and Savedoff are charged with taking 60 items from the Maryland Historical Society's library, including an 1861 land grant signed by President Abraham Lincoln; reading copies of speeches from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, N.Y., and an 1780 letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones from the New-York Historical Society in New York City. Landau, according to the indictment handed up by a federal grand jury, sold four of the reading copies of FDR speeches for $35,000.

But prosecutors have said that many more documents were pilfered. Assistant U.S. Attorney James Warwick said at a hearing this month that investigators have identified hundreds of stolen documents from at least 11 institutions, and the scheme may have been going on for "years if not decades." Landau's apartment on West 57th Street, which he shared with Savedoff, has been described as museum-like, with historic photos, artifacts and documents filling the walls.

Since the news of the arrests in Baltimore, staff members at archives across the country have been remembering visits by Landau, either alone or in the company of Savedoff. Landau, who maintains a website that identifies him as "America's presidential historian" and who has written a book, "The President's Table: 200 Years of Dining and Diplomacy," was particularly memorable.

"He said he had dated President Nixon's daughter," said Morgan Davis, a former archivist at the Missouri Historical Society.

In retrospect, Davis said, there was something "kind of off" about Landau, but nothing so far out of the usual realm in a field that has its share of personalities.

"When you're dealing with archivists or historians, a lot of times they're kind of eccentric," said Davis, who remembers Landau calling at least four times in advance of his visit to the society's museum and archive inSt. Louis in March 2008. Sometimes, he would keep her on the phone for 20 or 30 minutes, chatting about the time he spent at the White House and his connections to presidents and celebrities.

"I'm kind of a sympathetic person," she said. "And honestly, it was kind of interesting."

Landau took the opportunity to visit the archive while he was at the St. Louis public library to sign copies of his book. Officials at the museum and archive said they have checked the collections Landau viewed and found nothing missing.

Other historical troves may not have been as lucky.

Federal investigators have said that along with the 60 items from the Maryland Historical Society that were found in a locker that the pair using were 20 documents from other institutions, including the Connecticut Historical Society.

And searches of Landau's apartment found even more documents, numbering in the hundreds, that investigators say were stolen from the National Archives in Washington and universities such as Yale and Columbia.

"We certainly are in good company when I see the institutions they visited," Malley of the Connecticut Historical Society said wryly.

Malley said the society's staff is reviewing collections checked out by Landau and Savedoff during their four visits, twice in January and twice in March, to the archive in Hartford. There, Landau in particular was "not shy" about portraying himself as an experienced researcher and collector, even advising the archive's staff how to do its job, Malley said.

"They were looking at a folder of menus, and [Landau] said, 'Here's a menu from the dinner of Lincoln's second inaugural. … It really is a valuable piece and it should probably be conserved,'" Malley said. "He felt he was an important character."

Malley wonders if that was a ploy to ingratiate themselves to the archive staff. As at other archives, Landau and Savedoff brought sweets — Pepperidge Farm cookies — to the staff.

Library staffers have been working with investigators, sharing records of when Landau and Savedoff visited, and matching what has been found with their inventories. In one sense, investigators could not have a better group to work with: Librarians and archivists are by definition meticulous, trained to catalog and preserve historical documents and artifacts. But by the same token, historical society staffers say, there is no way to monitor that every one of the millions of items in their collections makes its way back to storage.

"A box may contain 100 pieces of paper," Arnold said.

Something that appeared to be missing might turn up in a different folder or box, simply misfiled, he said. Or, it may have vanished long before Landau and Savedoff asked to view the collection of which it was a part.

What sets archives apart from museums, Arnold said, is that even an important document such as the Washington letter that went missing temporarily is kept in the context of a collection, rather than displayed in isolation on a wall or behind glass.

If there is a silver lining to the alleged thefts at the nation's historical repositories, it's that "our system worked in the end," said Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society.

"We had people who were on the ball," he said of the volunteer and paid staffers who spotted suspicious behavior on the part of Landau and Savedoff, and called police, halting what prosecutors charge was a long-running plot to steal history.

"It is a violation. It is a violation of the whole society," Kummerow said. "But in the end … librarians are tough characters."