Collector pleads guilty to stealing thousands of historical documents

Barry Landau leaving court after copping a plea, February 7, 2012Media relations professional, self-educated presidential historian, collector of inauguration memorabilia, pathological liar and thief Barry Landau pleaded guilty in federal court Tuesday to stealing thousands of historical documents from museums including (but not limited to) the Maryland Historical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, the Connecticut Historical Society, the University of Vermont, the New York Historical Society, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library.

Jason SavedoffAccording to the plea agreement (pdf), Landau and his Canadian accomplice Jason Savedoff researched their targets online and off, compiling lists of the most valuable documents in the collections. From December 2010 until July 2011, the two of them cut a swath through museum collections, distracting staff with cupcakes then stuffing documents into hidden coat pockets and folders. They also removed any “finding aids,” like card catalogue entries, to make it hard for the museum to realize a document was missing.

Prosecutors said the value of the stolen documents easily exceeded $1 million. One of 60 documents stolen from the Maryland Historical Society was an 1861 land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln to a former member of the Maryland militia who served in the War of 1812. It’s worth $100,000, prosecutors said.

The oldest pilfered document was penned 533 years ago by Lorenzo de Medici during the Italian Renaissance. Among the most revered were three inaugural addresses delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt, with the president’s handwritten notes and corrections. […]

Among the items taken from the Pennsylvania archives, prosecutors said, was a 1788 handwritten proclamation by John Hancock regarding the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. […]

Federal prosecutors have described the scope of the thefts as “truly breathtaking,” with stolen documents that include an endorsement for a judge signed by George Washington, a letter written in French from Marie Antoinette, and an 1874 note from Karl Marx inquiring about the price of a book bearing his signature. […]

Among the most valuable documents stolen was a letter written in 1780 from Benjamin Franklin to naval hero John Paul Jones about gunpowder deliveries from the French. It is worth several hundred thousand dollars, according to prosecutors.

The court documents filed Tuesday list stolen papers signed by luminaries from a broad swath of history: Susan B. Anthony, John Hancock, John Adams, Robert E. Lee, Sir Isaac Newton, Napoleon and Florence Nightingale. Another item was a letter from Charles Dickens to Edgar Allen Poe.

Back at the lair, they would remove any inventory markings or other institutional references on the document by scrubbing them off using sandpaper or other abrasives. They called this “performing surgery.” The surgeried documents were then either sold or kept in Landau’s apartment.

Landau and Savedoff were caught by a sharp-eyed part-time staffer at the Maryland Historical Society in Mount Vernon on July 9, 2011. David Angerhofer thought the pair were “too schmoozy for regular people,” so he spied on them from a balcony and saw them stuff historical documents under their own papers and called the cops. Savedoff was in the bathroom when the police arrived. They banged on the stall door until he came out. The historical society staffer saw pieces of old-looking paper floating in the toilet but wasn’t able to fish them out right away. When he returned, the toilet had been used and flushed by another visitor.

Invitation to inauguration of McKinley in 1901, stolen from Maryland Historical SocietyLandau and Savedoff were arrested and police found 70 documents hidden in a computer bag. Sixty of them belonged to the Maryland Historical Society, including that land grant signed by President Lincoln and presidential inaugural ball invitations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. When the FBI searched Landau’s New York City apartment, they found 10,000 historical documents and ephemera. Experts from the National Archives and Records Administration have been able to trace 4,000 of them to the libraries and museums from whence they were stolen thus far.

Authorities think Landau has been stealing documents for years (President Bill Clinton’s secretary Betty Currie was sure he stole a signed book of the President’s speeches from her home in 2009) but the plea agreement only covers the thefts from December to July. Savedoff pleaded guilty last October to Conspiracy to Commit Theft of Major Artwork and Theft of Major Artwork. Now Landau has pleaded guilty to the same charges. He will be sentenced in May of this year.

Landau with his inaugural memorabilia collectionThis guy is such a despicable skeeze I can’t even. He spent years collecting presidential inauguration memorabilia, promoting himself as this huge expert with a collection that eclipsed even that of the Smithsonian. He was treated as the main expert on inaugurations by major media outlets, actors and film producers, plus a number of Presidents, First Ladies and Congress. Read this article from 2005, but keep a flight sickness bag handy because in hindsight it’s truly nauseating.

Four years ago, when the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies needed plates for the inaugural luncheon, it turned to Landau, who had a collection of china used at Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration in 1801. Presidents come and go, but traditions remain, and Landau is the keeper of traditions, the go-to guy.

“I have a letter from Jacqueline Kennedy,” Landau said, “and she wrote: ‘They should make you the Minister of Inaugurations.’ “