Disappearing Documents

By Karen Edwards Premium

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A letter from Benjamin Franklin dated April 1, 1780. An admission ticket to the gallery for Andrew Johnson’s impeachment trial. A reading copy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1937 inaugural addresses, with the president’s notations and signature.

These were among the 10,000 stolen documents and objects of cultural heritage discovered in 2011 in the New York City apartment of self-styled presidential historian Barry Landau.

The case publicized the exceptionally hard-to-trace crime of document theft. “We don’t really know what has been stolen because there’s no good way to track that information,” says Mitchell Yockelson, investigative archivist for the Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General (OIG). The mass of material in libraries and archives means there’s no line-item inventory to pick up a problem. An item can be missing for years before the loss is discovered, often only by luck.


In 2006, the OIG formed the Archival Recovery Team, a network of investigators, forensic analysts and labs, to investigate document thefts. Yockelson credits this seven-year-old team with a higher conviction rate.

At the same time, the OIG decided to publicize these crimes. Making the general public aware that documents are being taken, Yockelson says—maybe even by the “researcher” in the next carrel—increases the chances of catching or preventing a theft.

Document thieves look just like any other researcher. But their intentions set them apart: Some thieves are collectors, looking for the rare and unique to add to their personal museums. These individuals often feel protective of the items, says Yockelson. When they see something that would fit into their collection, they take it, “because they think they can take better care of it.”


Other thieves, like Landau, do it for the money. “Some will steal the item, then sell it online at an auction site,” Yockelson says. Thieves also offer stolen documents to museums, libraries and collectors.

Many of the regulations you comply with while researching at repositories are designed to discourage this type of theft. Jackets, briefcases, folders and other possessions that could be used to hide a document may be forbidden in research rooms.

But staff, who have easy access to valuable historic documents, also can be the culprits. The Philadelphia branch of the National Archives and Records Administration has seen two of its staff arrested for pilfering documents. In 2011, retired archivist Leslie C. Waffen admitted to stealing nearly 1,000 rare audio recordings. One of Babe Ruth went for $34.74 on the auction website eBay.

Investigators alert a network of book dealers, museums and collectors when a theft has been discovered, but the general public may be the best first line of defense. “If you see suspicious activity, report it to the librarian,” Yockelson says. That might include excessive shuffling of papers or walking around the room.

You also should tell staff when you come across pages removed from a book or documents absent from a file. “[Staff will] know if something is missing or if it’s just been misfiled,” Yockelson says.

And if you’re in the market for historical documents, ask for written proof of provenance before making a purchase. Be suspicious of erasure marks or areas that appear to have been trimmed away, which may indicate the seller removed a repository’s file number or ownership marks. If you think you’ve come across an original that belongs to the US government, report it to the National Archives. Here, you also can see a list of known documents the archives is missing.
There’s no surveillance system like thousands of pairs of eyes on alert. No matter how long it takes to find a stolen archival document, Yockelson says, “We’re always looking.”

A Rogue’s Gallery

The jig is up for these historic document thieves, caught by a combination of investigative work, public vigilance and a bit of luck.
 • A summer intern at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Benjamin Johnson was arrested in 2001 for stealing $2 million worth of rare books, and sentenced to 15 months in prison.
• Shawn Aubitz worked for the National Archives while stealing documents and photographs worth $100,000. He was convicted in 2002 and sentenced to 21 months in prison.
• Fine-grained sandpaper was among the tricks James Brubaker used to erase library stamps from the 1,000 rare books and 20,000 pages of maps, lithographs and prints torn from books stolen from libraries across the country. He was arrested in 2008 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.
• National Archives intern Denning McTigue was convicted in 2008 of stealing Civil War documents and was sentenced to 15 months in prison.
• Leslie Waffen, an archivist at the National Archives for 40 years, was arrested in 2010 for stealing audio recordings. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison.
• A self-styled presidential historian, Barry Landau was convicted in 2012 of stealing 10,000 documents from repositories including the Maryland Historical Society, New York Historical Society and National Archives. He’d chat up staff, blocking their view of his associate, Jason Savedoff. Landau is serving a seven-year prison sentence; Savedoff got one year. 

From the September 2013 Family Tree Magazine