WASHINGTON — Less than two years after police caught the two men responsible for stealing about 10,000 historical documents across the East Coast, the National Archives hosted a forum to discuss the bizarre details of the case and how historians can better prevent future thefts.
Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff of New York were recently convicted of the thefts of millions of dollars worth of historic records, including letters signed by Sir Isaac Newton, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Charles Dickens and Marie Antoinette. Their ???stealing streak ended in 2011 when an employee of the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore alerted police after seeing Savedoff attempt to smuggle a document out of the building.
After the men were arrested, police searched Savedoff’s locker at the library and found 60 stolen documents, including papers belonging to the Maryland Historical Society that were signed by Abraham Lincoln. An FBI search of Landau’s New York apartment revealed a treasure trove containing thousands of other stolen records that Landau and Savedoff had built up over the course of several years.
“There were documents all over the place,” said investigative archivist Mitch Yockelson, who helped investigators clear out the apartment. “Unbelievable stuff signed by Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Literally it was a Toys ‘R Us for historians.”
Yockelson and Assistant U.S. State’s Attorney Jim Warwick shared other bizarre details about the case with the forum’s attendees. Investigators learned that Landau and Savedoff posed as researchers when they visited the archives, and Landau would charm the employees with cupcakes and lie about having personal ties to several U.S. presidents. At the apartment, the FBI also discovered coats with hidden pockets that the men used to smuggle documents.
Both Landau and Savedoff are now serving federal prison sentences of seven and one year respectively.
The speakers hope that with increased awareness about this and other archive thefts, historians will be more vigilant about protecting the nation’s treasures.
“We can’t afford to have more Barry Landaus out there,” Warwick said. “We can’t afford to lose precious pieces of history.”
In the aftermath of the case, the National Archives formed a Holdings Protection team to oversee increased security in facilities across the country. Measures implemented include staff training, the installation of security cameras and inspections of outgoing mail.
“It’s difficult since most places literally have millions of documents,” Yockelson said. “Security is certainly beefed up in repositories — checking individuals when they leave, checking their coats, checking their baggage, checking their laptops. We want to make sure people come here, use our records and they leave them behind.”