Pair tried to steal historical documents worth millions, police say
Barry H. Landau has rubbed elbows with presidents, helped plan inaugurations, and claims one of the largest collections of Oval Office memorabilia outside museums and presidential libraries. His Manhattan apartment includes a collection of china from Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration and a picture of Landau kissing John F. Kennedy’s dog Clipper.
Police say he tried to expand that collection by pilfering dozens of rare documents from the Maryland Historical Society on Saturday. Landau, whose connections reportedly bridge the Washington, New York and Hollywood elite, now sits in Central Booking and is being held without bail.
The artifacts police say he and 24-year-old Jason Savedoff tried to take during a Saturday of reviewing historical papers at the Monument Street nonprofit’s archives include documents signed by Abraham Lincoln, presidential inaugural ball invitations and programs, a commemoration of the Statue of Liberty, and a commemoration of the Washington Monument.
The items range in value from $100,000 to $500,000, and are just four of the 60 documents police say the men planned to steal, meaning the total value could be in the millions.
The FBI is investigating the case with the Baltimore Police Department. The historical society declined to talk about the case, saying the investigation was continuing.
“We’re working closely with law enforcement agencies on this, and I’m not at liberty right now to talk about the case any further than that,” said Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society.
Curators of historical collections have had to think differently about theft in recent years. Michael McCormick, director of reference services for the Maryland State Archives, said television shows like the “Antiques Roadshow” and the rise of eBay and other Internet-based auction sites have led to increased demand for historical items. Smaller libraries and historical societies are particularly vulnerable.
“These are valuable items, held in trust for the public. There’s no point in collecting if they’re not available,” McCormick said. “But the public needs to be aware that this material is under threat, and it takes resources to protect them.”
Paul Brachfeld, inspector general for the National Archives, said institutions have traditionally put an emphasis on open access, and less on security. The former Secret Service and customs agent said the archives were falling prey to thieves, including their own employees, and decided to go on the offensive.
He beefed up security measures, and directed undercover investigators to connect with sellers on the Internet to sniff out stolen material. The Archives has also become more diligent in spreading the word about missing items — something that some institutions avoid because of embarrassment — by creating a website that lists stolen items and shows pictures. Currently missing: the Wright Brothers’ flying machine patent, target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a reading copy of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech. In some cases, pictures of the documents are included.
“We’re under attack in so many different ways,” Brachfeld said. “We have such a gigantic inventory that we didn’t even know if something was stolen until you went to show it and realized it was gone.”
McCormick said that for decades archivists have tried to provide duplicate copies of documents to restrict access to the originals.
“In most cases, the researcher really does not need access to the artifact,” he said. “What they need is access to the intellectual content. That can be done using copies. The researcher really needs to make a convincing case to the archivist for their need to handle the original item.”
But access continues, and thefts are nearly impossible to avoid. In 2003, President Bill Clinton’s former national security adviser, Samuel R. Berger, walked out of the National Archives with classified documents stuffed in his sock. He was caught and fined $50,000.
“It’s harder to do, but if someone really wants to steal, they may get away with it,” Brachfeld said.
Romaine Somerville was a curator and director for the Maryland Historical Society for about 15 years, until the mid-1980s, and said she couldn’t recall any thefts from the society.
“One document disappeared, then reappeared mysteriously months later,” Somerville said. “Another time, jewelry was taken out of a box when we were moving out of the old building or into the new one.”
The jewelry was later returned via a third party, she said.
Somerville said the allegations of the weekend theft were “shocking.” “It seems to me [they] should have known better,” she said.
Police say Landau, of the first block of W. 57th St. in New York, and Savedoff, from the 700 block of West End Ave., spent much of Saturday examining documents and began to attract the attention of staff toward the end of the day.