The Case of the Disappearing Documents

on Freitag, 30 September 2011. Posted in General Autograph News


One collector's love for presidential memorabilia lasted decades—and led to an indictment roiling a cloistered world..

At age 10, Barry Landau wrote a letter to Dwight D. Eisenhower, admiring his "very beautiful" wife and offering his assessment of where the general stood in the country's pantheon of great leaders. "I think you lived the most exciting and the most interesting life then [sic] any other President of our United States," according to a copy of the letter released by the Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum.
The boy got a card back from the White House, triggering a lifelong love of historical documents and a passion for accumulating them. He has since built what his lawyer calls the world's largest private collection of American presidential memorabilia.

Now he's under house arrest, and items from his prized collection have been seized by federal agents in a case that has rocked the tight-knit world of historical-document collectors.

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Photos show Barry Landau in a police mug shot and at age 10 in a picture sent to President Eisenhower. (A letter to Eisenhower is on blue stock.) Far right, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from whose presidential library Mr. Landau is accused of stealing.

Mr. Landau and an associate, Jason Savedoff, are awaiting federal trial in Baltimore, accused of conspiring to steal irreplaceable historic documents and sell them for profit. Paul Brachfeld, inspector general of the National Archives and Records Administration, says that of the 10,000 pieces removed from Mr. Landau's New York home, at least 2,500 of them—potentially worth millions of dollars—were stolen from historical societies, university libraries and other institutions along the East Coast

Prosecutors said in court that they found in Mr. Landau's apartment jackets with extra-deep pockets specifically tailored for stashing documents.

Lee Arnold, senior director of the library and collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, recalls a duo with a voracious appetite for documents. He says the pair handled hundreds of boxes of items, visiting 21 times between December and May, and gave out Pepperidge Farm cookies to staff. At the Maryland Historical Society, where the indictment alleges the pair stole roughly 60 documents, a staffer says they tried to charm employees with cupcakes (including a "California Dreamin'" variety with orange citrus-flavored buttercream).

"To see this type of material, the content and the volume, it leaves your jaw kind of slack," says Mr. Brachfeld, whose office is examining Mr. Landau's collection of allegedly stolen documents. "This collection that we've recovered appears to be far in excess of anything we've previously seized."

Both men have pleaded not guilty. Mr. Savedoff has an Oct. 27 date set for his rearraignment, where he's expected to change his plea to guilty, according to people close to the case.

The alleged crime spree comes amid robust demand for rare American documents. Last year, Sotheby's sold a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Lincoln and once owned by Robert F. Kennedy for nearly $3.8 million, more than double its presale high estimate and an auction record for a presidential document. Lincoln's 1864 victory speech written in his hand—a document known as an autograph manuscript—sold for more than $3.4 million at Christie's in 2009.

The overall auction market for rare American historical documents totals $30 million to $50 million annually, with roughly 5,000 to 8,000 pieces sold per year, says Selby Kiffer, Sotheby's senior international specialist for books and manuscripts.

On Nov. 15, Christie's will auction five pages from the original manuscript of Thomas Jefferson's "Manual of Parliamentary Procedure" with a high estimate of $300,000. On Dec. 13, Sotheby's will offer a George Washington autograph document dated 1781 detailing writing instructions to his recording secretary, estimated at $25,000 to $35,000.

Criminals are lured not just by big-ticket items but by artifacts whose origins may be tough to trace, like White House dinner invitations issued en masse. "If you take things that are made in multiples, those are all very sellable," says former Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Robert Wittman, a leading art-crime investigator.

Top document collectors include real-estate magnate Albert Small and, for years, omnivore buyers Richard Gilder, the senior member of the brokerage firm Gilder, Gagnon, Howe & Co., and Lewis Lehrman, chairman of L.E. Lehrman & Co., a Greenwich, Conn., investment firm. Buyers tend to be cerebral types who obtain rare artifacts for longstanding collections, not risk-takers looking to buy and sell status symbols. "It's the type of collecting that doesn't hang on the wall above your couch and shout, 'Here I am, I'm valuable,' " says Chris Coover, Christie's senior specialist for books and manuscripts.

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Barry Landau and some of his collection of inaugural memorabilia in a 2005 photo taken in his Manhattan apartment.HELAYNE SEIDMAN

The case against Messrs. Landau and Savedoff has cast an unflattering light on the lax security at many archives that preserve documents central to the national identity. Some of the archives allegedly targeted by the men are cash-strapped, struggling to fully staff their reading rooms—like the Maryland society, which has slashed staffing by more than 70% over the past decade. Many of these smaller institutions allow relatively easy access: Until this summer, visitors to the University of Vermont's library didn't have to show identification, according to Jeffrey Marshall, director of research collections at the university's Bailey/Howe Library.

In court, prosecutors called the University of Vermont a target of the suspects. Mr. Marshall says the institution is missing roughly 60 documents, including letters from Franklin D. Roosevelt. The library isn't among those mentioned in the indictment, and Mr. Marshall declines to comment on whether the men visited there.

"At some extremes, there's no watchdog" at archival institutions, says Robert Goldman, a former federal prosecutor who chased document thieves and other art criminals for the bulk of his career. "A person comes in and is given the keys to the kingdom."

Mr. Landau, 63 years old, and Mr. Savedoff, 24, were arrested July 9 at the Maryland Historical Society after staff became suspicious of their behavior. The indictment alleges the pair pilfered dozens of documents from that institution, including an 1861 land grant signed by Lincoln. It also states that the men stole a 1780 Benjamin Franklin letter from the New-York Historical Society and seven "reading copies" of speeches from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum bearing the president's markings; it accuses Mr. Landau of subsequently selling four of those FDR speeches for $35,000. A prosecutor argued in court that Mr. Savedoff may have flushed a paper down the toilet just before the arrest.

Steven D. Silverman, Mr. Landau's lawyer, says there is no evidence his client had any of his jackets or overcoats altered to create bigger pockets and argues that the burden is on the government, not Mr. Landau, to prove the source of every document: "His collection is so vast that it's impossible for Barry or anyone to identify the origin of many of the items since they were accumulated over decades," he says. Mr. Landau declined to be interviewed.

A lawyer for Mr. Savedoff declined to comment. Mr. Savedoff was released on $250,000 bond. Mr. Landau introduced Mr. Savedoff to archives staff as his nephew, though Mr. Silverman says they aren't related. If convicted, the suspects face maximum prison sentences of 15 years.

Maryland U.S. Attorney Rod J. Rosenstein, whose office is prosecuting the case, sees far-reaching repercussions for archives. "They're no longer going to be so trusting," he says. Archive staffers are buying new cameras, locking bathrooms and improving sight lines in reading rooms. The Manuscript Society, an organization for document collectors, recently tucked a flier into the journal mailed to its 1,000 members asking them to contact the FBI if they were approached by the two men selling memorabilia.

A National Archives team is still poring over Mr. Landau's collection, including an original tongue-in-cheek epitaph written by a young Benjamin Franklin for himself in 1728 in which he calls himself "food for worms." Investigators say they are now informing archives that may have been hit. "We're going to surprise a lot of people," Mr. Brachfeld says.

Files and boxes at archives may be labeled, but often their contents are not. Inventorying everything at the Maryland Historical Society "would take us probably a decade," says Burt Kummerow, the society's president, estimating the suspects targeted up to $1 million in items.

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In this photo provided by the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., is a letter written in 1861 by President Abraham Lincoln to Col. Richard Dawson Goodwin.ABRAHAM LINCOLN PRESIDENTIAL LIBRARY AND MUSEUM/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Locking original documents in vaults and handing out copies isn't a popular solution, either. Archives operate largely outside the digital realm, lacking the funds to make their entire collections available electronically. Besides, that idea runs counter to the mission of sharing the artifacts in all their yellowing, crumbly glory. "If the material is not available for people to use, then what's the point?" asks Richard Malley, head of research and collections at the Connecticut Historical Society.

Yale University clamped down on library security a few years ago after antiquities dealer E. Forbes Smiley confessed to widespread map theft on the campus and elsewhere, says Lynn Ieronimo, the head of security at Yale's Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. That library has installed casino-style cameras that hover over every table in the glass-walled reading room, and the library is considering adding facial recognition software to its arsenal says Ms. Ieronimo, who adds that everyone's belongings, including her own, are searched upon departure.

Mr. Landau's quest for documents began in 1958, when he was a curious 10-year-old with a toothy grin. The letter to Eisenhower, one of at least two, came with a request for an autograph, along with a picture of himself holding a dachshund by the hind legs on a manicured yard.

Over the years, Mr. Landau went on to amass what he has called a collection of more than one million pieces, which formed the basis of his 2007 book, "The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy." (The book lists him as Barry H. Landau, though at other times he has been identified as Barry M. Landau.)

In a 2007 speech promoting that book at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, a talk that is now posted online, Mr. Landau described himself as a D.C. insider who worked for eight presidents. (Photos show him with Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.) He described his White House role as "flying below the radar." He added: "I was always behind the scenes, so it's fun, and there's integrity to what I do, you know?"

In his New York accent, the former press agent told his story, interrupted occasionally by audience members asking him to back off the microphone. He said he was the grandson of immigrants who came to the U.S. with little more than a pair of candlesticks. His mother, he said, worked her way through college and became a photographer for journalist Walter Winchell. He was an asthmatic and lonely boy, the child of bitterly divorced parents whose father once told him, "You're never going to amount to anything because you think with your heart."

Mr. Landau now is confined to his Manhattan apartment with a GPS monitoring device around his ankle. He recently sought permission from the court to sell off some possessions to pay his expenses, including a $40,000-to-$60,000 Andy Warhol print entitled "Liz," which he identified as a gift from the artist, glass frogs and other figurines, a presidential-inaugural medal collection and jewelry from his mother.

—Jim Oberman contributed to this article.

How to collect defensively:

Rare-document collectors don't just fear mold and fire, but thieves and forgers, too. To avoid a stolen or faked document, experts offer some basic guidelines, such as: Don't always trust historical papers sold online and remember that a writer couldn't have used a ball-point pen if it wasn't invented yet. Here, more wisdom from the pros:

  • ASK QUESTIONS: Collectors should ask about a document's past owners and why it's on the market now. If a suspicious document pertains to a particular state or president, a call to a state historical society or presidential library might help clarify the paper's origins. Another resource:
  • LOOK FOR FAMILY TIES: A presidential letter sold by an original recipient's family is a safer bet than one that appears out of the blue, says Sotheby's expert Selby Kiffer. Documentation for most White House correspondence exists and can help authenticate the item.
  • BEWARE OF INK BLOBS: Forgers often put the pen on paper too hard at the start of a signature, creating an abnormally thick line. "That's not how people actually write," says autograph expert and rare-document dealer Kenneth Rendell. "You begin the stroke before it touches paper.
  • KNOW THE SUBJECT: Thomas Jefferson's handwriting was a remarkably consistent blend of Roman and italic styles, while George Washington's signature became less and less compressed over time. Forgers might not grasp such nuances, says Chris Coover, a Christie's expert.
  • STUDY THE SCRIPT: In a genuine document, a capital letter in a signature is often more stylized than it appears in other parts of a text. When Mr. Rendell was investigating the forged Hitler diaries, he recalls finding the "H" in "Hitler" too similar to the "H" in "Himmler," a tip-off.
  • CHECK THE FINE PRINT: While forgers might carefully duplicate a founding father's handwriting, they could mess up on the postage or address.
  • AVOID TIME TRAVELERS: Nobody wrote with a quill in 1900—people used steel nibs. The worst offenders: forgeries created on paper with a watermark dated after the letter was sent.
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