The Case of the Disappearing Documents
One collector's love for presidential memorabilia lasted decades—and led to an indictment roiling a cloistered worldhttp://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204422404576596873383476078.html?mod=googlenews_wsj
The boy got a card back from the White House, triggering a lifelong love of historical documents and a passion for accumulating them.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.
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.
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.
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.
Historian in theft plot seeks to sell off assets
BALTIMORE - A presidential historian charged with conspiring to steal documents from archives throughout the Northeast is asking for court permission to sell artwork and other valuables to cover his living expenses, according to a motion filed Friday in U.S. District Court.
Barry Landau, 63, needs cash to pay expenses such as the $2,700 rent on his midtown Manhattan apartment, health insurance and food, according to the filing from attorney Andrew White. Landau's terms of release require court permission before he can sell or dispose of any assets.
Landau and his 24-year-old assistant, Jason Savedoff, are charged with stealing valuable historical documents from the Maryland Historical Society and conspiring to steal documents from other archives. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Landau was allowed to return to his Manhattan apartment with GPS monitoring. Savedoff, who surrendered his American and Canadian passports, was released on $250,000 cash bail to his mother's custody and is staying at a Baltimore-area apartment.
White writes in the motion filed last week that Landau may not have much cash to pay his living expenses, but does have items of value that can be sold.
"These items were not seized by the FBI in the multiple searches of the defendant's apartment and are unquestionably not related to the charges now pending in this case," White said. "The defendant seeks to liquidate these items because he is now without funds necessary to pay his everyday expenses."
The items include artworks by Francesco Scavullo, Victor Vaserely, Salvador Dali, LeRoy Neiman and Andy Warhol. White notes that the Warhol print, "Liz," which depicts the late actress Elizabeth Taylor and was a gift from the artist, is the only piece of significant value. An expert has valued it at $40,000 to $60,000 and the Scavullo and Vasarely works are worth about $5,000 each, he said.
The other items Landau is seeking to sell include presidential inaugural medals he has collected since 1961 and political china such as commemorative plates and figurines which were mostly gifts he received since the 1960s. He also seeks permission to sell coin sets, glass vases he inherited from his mother, jewelry and a collection of letters, photographs and books addressed and inscribed to Landau from political, theatrical and Hollywood figures.
White suggests that a New York attorney who has been helping with the case handle most of the sales and Christie's auction house handle the sale of the Warhol "Liz" print through a private commission sale or a commissioned auction.
Prosecutors have said the historian used different routines to distract librarians and had sport jackets and overcoats altered to allow him to stash documents inside large pockets. They allege that the men had about 80 documents when they were arrested in the historical society's library in Baltimore in July.
About 60 of those documents were from the Maryland Historical Society, including papers signed by President Abraham Lincoln worth $300,000 and presidential inaugural ball invitations and programs worth $500,000. The other documents were from the Connecticut Historical Society, Vassar College and the National Archives, according to prosecutors.
Searches of Landau's apartment in July turned up thousands of documents. Prosecutors said in early August that National Archives workers had already determined that 200 belong to institutions, including Swarthmore College, the Smithsonian Institution, Yale University, Columbia University, the New York Public Library, Vassar College, Cambridge University, the University of Vermont and the Library of Congress.
The men were indicted by a federal grand jury in late July, accused of stealing and selling historical documents that included a Benjamin Franklin letter and speeches by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. State prosecutors have elected to not pursue theft charges the pair faced immediately after their arrest.