Historian Pleads Guilty To Document Theft Scheme

Published February 7, 2012 10:09PM (EST)

BALTIMORE (AP) — A presidential historian, collector and author pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring to steal documents signed by leaders throughout U.S. history.

Barry Landau of New York City admitted to taking documents from the Maryland Historical Society and conspiring with his assistant to steal documents from that institution and others in the Northeast with the intention of selling them.

The assistant pleaded guilty in October to the same charges: theft of major artwork and conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork.

Prosecutors say the 63-year-old Landau schemed for years, if not decades, to steal valuable documents.

Landau and Jason Savedoff, 24, were arrested in July in Baltimore after a Maryland Historical Society employee saw Savedoff stash a document into a portfolio and walk out of the library, authorities said in court documents. The employee said he'd been watching the pair for hours because they seemed to be acting suspiciously.

The pair had about 80 documents when they were arrested, according to Savedoff's plea. About 60 belonged to the Maryland society, including papers signed by President Abraham Lincoln worth $300,000 and presidential inaugural ball invitations and programs worth $500,000.

In the weeks after Landau's arrest, the FBI seized 10,000 documents from his Manhattan apartment. By September, National Archives and Records Administration investigators had traced more than 2,000 to libraries and other repositories, according to court documents. Those documents were signed by historical figures ranging from American presidents George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lincoln and John Adams to the French leaders Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte, as well as German philosopher Karl Marx, according to Savedoff's plea.

The pair stole seven copies of speeches Roosevelt's speeches from the Roosevelt Presidential Library in New York, four of which Landau later sold for $35,000, according to the indictment.

The pair compiled lists of historical figures, often noting the market value of documents signed bythem, and Savedoff identified collections with valuable documents that they could target, according to Savedoff's plea.

The case was wake-up call for some archives and historical institutions to strengthen their security, and it prompted many to review their logs for visits by the pair and collections to see if anything was missing.

Landau portrayed himself as an expert on presidential history and etiquette and was quoted in articles and interviewed on television programs. He showed off his museum-like apartment filled with mementos dating back to Washington's presidency when reporters came to interview him.

A 2007 Associated Press article, written when Landau's book, "The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy" was published, includes his tale of how his fascination with the presidency began. Landau said at age 10 he parlayed a meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower during an appearance in New York into an invitation to the White House.

By Salon Staff

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