Archivists check collections in wake of Md. theft

AP News
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Posted: Jul 21, 2011 3:31 PM
Archivists check collections in wake of Md. theft

Archivists are combing their collections to make sure they're not missing artifacts after a presidential historian was charged this month with stealing millions of dollars in documents from a historical society in Baltimore. Already, the accused author's name has turned up again in the investigation of a George Washington letter that went missing in Philadelphia.

Before the accusations, Barry Landau had helped plan special events for several presidents and drew upon his collection of souvenirs to write a coffee-table book about meals in the White House. He has visited archives in several cities to do research on the presidents.

The theft charges against him and a companion have served as a wakeup call for the institutions to review their vulnerabilities. They often have limited money and must balance security measures against giving access to the public.

"I think we're doing very good with prophylactic security measures but we're still a target," said Lee Arnold, senior director of the library and collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, which Landau visited 17 times with the other man charged in the case.

"We're still going to take these documents that are in the public trust with us and share them with the public. It might be a little more stringent."

Arnold told The Associated Press that the archive in Philadelphia received information this week that Landau may have tried to sell the missing letter signed by Washington. Its records show Landau's assistant, Jason Savedoff, checked out a box that contained the letter in the weeks before it was offered for sale.

Landau, 63, and Savedoff, 24, were arrested July 9 in Baltimore after an employee of the Maryland Historical Society saw Savedoff tuck a document into a portfolio and walk out of the library, authorities say in court documents. The employee said he'd been watching them for hours because he thought they were acting suspiciously, even after they'd treated the staff to cupcakes.

Investigators say they found 60 historical documents, many of them signed out by Landau, inside a locker Savedoff was using at the library. The documents included papers signed by Lincoln worth $300,000 and numerous presidential inaugural ball invitations and programs worth $500,000.

Landau's attorney, Steven D. Silverman, says there's no evidence against the historian. Savedoff's attorney did not return calls for comment. Attorneys for both New York City residents have asked for a review of why each was denied bail while being held on a charge of theft over $100,000.

The arrest also prompted a search last week of the author's museum-like apartment that's lined with mementos dating back to Washington's presidency, the FBI said.

Black and white etchings of 19th-century inaugurations hang from the walls, while a cabinet displays presidential goblets, plates and a skeleton key that fit the front door of the White House during John Adams' administration, according to a 2007 AP article.

Landau has appeared on TV programs and been quoted in news articles, particularly for his knowledge of White House social events. In 2007 he published "The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy."

His fascination and expertise with the presidency began with his story of charming President Dwight Eisenhower during a 1958 appearance in New York. Landau, then 10, claims he parlayed the meeting into an invitation to the White House, where he sat at Eisenhower's desk and sharpened the president's pencils.

Landau claimed in the 2007 article that he was an intern during the Johnson administration and that he helped plan the state dinner for President Gerald Ford during a visit by Queen Elizabeth II. Maria Downs, then social secretary for Betty Ford and now spokeswoman for the White House Historical Association, said Landau was the guest of an invited guest at that dinner, but did not help plan it or work for the Ford administration as far as she knew.

Dealers of rare manuscripts said they were not surprised when they heard of the charges against Landau _ some of them had been wary of him for years.

"He was always friends with all kinds of high-profile people and always claimed to have all kinds of high-level positions," said Scott Winslow, a Bedford, Conn.-based manuscript dealer. "He always claimed to get great things for his collection with no real visible means for paying for it."

It's not uncommon for people to be caught stealing documents from archives, institutions or special collections, Winslow said, though he added that administrators have tightened security measures in recent years.

Making that task difficult, though, the institutions often lack the money and time to catalog every item they have, said National Archives and Records Administration Inspector General Paul Brachfeld. Researchers are sometimes handed a box of hundreds of pieces of paper, and it wouldn't be clear if a few items were missing when the box is handed back, he said.

To supplement their security, Brachfield's office monitors websites and auctions for items that might have been stolen. His agents are aiding the FBI's investigation of Landau and Savedoff, but he wouldn't comment on whether the probe has identified any items missing from the National Archive.

"These are important cases. There may not be bodies in the streets, and it might not be _ in some cases _ the highest dollar volume, but when people steal from the National Archives, they're stealing from the people. These are the records of our country, of our democracy," Brachfeld said.

The Historical Society of Pennsylvania plans an all-hands-on-deck check next week of several collections Landau and Savedoff accessed during their visits, during which they sometimes treated staff to Pepperidge Farm cookies.

Arnold already knows that the Washington letter disappeared under suspicious circumstances. A manuscript dealer contacted the society months ago saying she was offered the letter but had concerns that it may have belonged to the society. Arnold told the dealer that the document was missing, and the would-be seller sent it back to the society anonymously. Arnold was just pleased to have the missing document back.

It was only this week that the dealer contacted Arnold to say the seller was Landau. When the society checked their records, they found that Savedoff had checked out the box that originally contained the letter in February, just weeks before the Washington letter was offered to the dealer, Arnold said.

At the Maryland Historical Society, officials said the arrests show that its staff is alert.

"It could have just been one of those sad stories, but the staff was there and was on the ball," said society President Burt Kummerow. "It draws attention to the wonderful institution trying to keep the history of the nation alive."