Dead Confederates, A Civil War Era Blog

Buh-Bye, Barry.

Posted in Memory by Andy Hall on June 27, 2012

Barry Landau, the rare-documents dealer who was caught stealing materials from the Maryland Historical Society, will be sentenced later today in federal court in Baltimore. Landau entered a guilty plea last February, admitting that he and his assistant, Jason Savedoff, had an elaborate and extensive scheme for lifting materials — at least 4,000 of them, according to investigators:

Many of the stolen documents are more than 100 years old and some are worth more than $100,000. They include the copies of speeches President Franklin D. Roosevelt read from during his three inaugurations, a land grant signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861 and letters written by scientist Isaac Newton, novelist Charles Dickens and French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte.
 
In a plea agreement signed in February, Landau acknowledged that he and his now 25-year-old assistant Jason Savedoff would visit historical archives and often distract staff while stuffing documents into secret pockets in their clothing. The pair attempted to cover up the thefts by removing card catalog listings for the items and using sandpaper and other methods to remove museum markings, a process they called “performing surgery.”
 

There’s a good background piece on this case, and the implications for archivists and collections, at the Wall Street Journal. Their modus operandi went beyond secret compartments in their clothing, to just plain ol’ ingratiating themselves to the staff:

 
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).
 

Landau and Savedoff reportedly face up to 15 years for their crimes, though federal sentencing guidelines typically call for much shorter sentences for first-time convictions, or defendants who cooperate with investigators to mitigate the harm they’ve done. I’m not a lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key kinda guy, generally, but I’m going to be hard pressed to be sympathetic if the court goes outside the sentencing guidelines and throws the book at these fools. Their actions are, in many ways, more damaging than those of the guy who systematically looted the Petersburg National Battlefield Park. As I said last year, I’ve been to too many collections, and asked to see too many documents listed in the catalog, only to find a note in the folder that reads, “Missing since [date].” The theft of materials from archives — with shrinking staff and often poor security — is a terrible problem. I’ve long believed that a not-insignificant proportion of the documents market is made up from material gone missing from archives, and especially so with autographs; whole letters can often be traced back to their source, but a signature excised from a larger document cannot.

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Update, Wednesday afternoon: Landau was sentenced to seven years in prison and $46,000 restitution. His accomplice, Jason Savedoff, pleaded guilty last fall and will be sentenced at a later date.

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5 Responses

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  1. theravenspoke said, on June 27, 2012 at 10:24 am

    The law says theft, but really, they committed treason.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2012 at 10:27 am

      We all react disproportionately when a crime hits close to home, that has a particular link to something we value individually, and this is one of those for me.

  2. Jim Armistead said, on June 27, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    I work at a Presidential Library which Mr. Landau visited in the past. We don’t think any of our material is missing. Security has been increased although it was a concern even before Mr. Landau had his 15 minutes of glory. In my opinion, he has a lot of gall to advertise himself as “America’s Presidential Historian.” I wonder what all of his rich and famous “friends” think of him now?! It doesn’t matter that after he is released he can visit a Historical Society and/or Archives with his probation officer’s permission. Even with his cupcakes in hand, Archivists should see him coming now.

    • Andy Hall said, on June 27, 2012 at 7:14 pm

      Yeah. I actually have one of his books, that I’d picked up cheap, second-hand (he didn’t make anything off of the sale) because it had all sorts of odd memorabilia in it. I wonder how much of that stuff was stolen.

      I’d also say that, even had the thefts never happened, the “America’s Presidential Historian” is ridiculous — maybe, “foremost private collector,” but not historian.

  3. Foxessa said, on July 1, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    Hanging does cross the mind of this librarian, archivist and historian — and one who is a member of the Maryland Historical Society — as appropriate.


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