Hartford, CT (CTNow) — The Connecticut Historical Society is recovering dozens of rare documents – among them letters by George Washington, Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte – stolen by a pair of society thieves who removed a truckload of similar pieces from museums on the East Coast.
Barry Landau, 64, author, presidential scholar, collector of memorabilia and self-described intimate of presidential families, was sentenced to seven years in prison earlier this year. His assistant, Jason Savedoff, 25, an aspiring Canadian model, was sentenced last week to a year and a day. They met in a New York gym and, until their arrests, shared Landau's Manhattan apartment.
The two are accused of achieving a new standard for a crime that has become increasing common and of growing concern to archivists around the country.
The Connecticut documents and most of the others the two stole from institutions from Washington to Vermont are believed to have been recovered. Belated cooperation by Landau led FBI agents and specialists at the National Archives to the rare document dealers to whom he had sold materials.
Almost as soon as the crimes were detected, managers of collections in Hartford and elsewhere were reassessing how to make materials available to scholars in the future.
"We have received the first batch back," said Richard Malley, the head of research and collections at the Connecticut Historical Society on Elizabeth Street. "There is great news. But it is a cautionary tale."
Landau and Savedoff were not common thieves.
Landau used his 2007 book on White House entertainment, "The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy," to win access to curators of rare and historic document collections. He and Savedoff arrived with platters of cookies and cupcakes to win over museum staffs.
Once inside, the FBI said, one often created a diversion while the other slipped fragile pages into secret pockets stitched into specially tailored sports jackets. The thefts ended in Maryland in 2011 when a museum employee saw Savedoff slip a document into a file.
Landau and Savedoff visited the Connecticut Historical Society four times in 2011, telling the staff that Landau was doing research for a second book. He said he wanted to examine materials from closed stacks, as well as invitations, menus and other materials associated with presidential and gubernatorial balls and dinners.
During a succession of interviews following publication of the first book, Landau boasted of being a confidant of White House families dating to the Ford administration.
"I recall I was doing a 'Lindy' with Mrs. Ford and remember 'spinning her out' when I suddenly received a tap on my shoulder, turning around to be face to face with Hollywood icon Fred Astaire," he told the Los Angeles Times.
Malley said that when Landau arrived in Hartford he used his first book to establish his credentials, greeted the society staff with cookies and spent most of his visits examining document collections. He looked too at the commemoration ribbons and medals that governors used to hand to guests as keepsakes as opposed to the lanyards and name tags distributed at modern, less gracious social events.
"He was a master, I think, of ingratiating himself, of promoting himself," Malley said.
The U.S attorney's office in Maryland, where the two were prosecuted, said Landau and Savedoff undertook extensive research to identify, locate and estimate the value of collections. They tried to prevent museums from detecting losses by destroying card catalog entries associated with stolen documents and leaving behind documents reproduced on microfilm.
Once outside the museums, the two admitted to the FBI, they "performed surgery" on stolen pieces, attempting to remove stamps or other identifying marks affixed by museums.
Malley said the Connecticut Historical Society, a private, nonprofit museum, has been informed by the FBI and specialists with the National Archives that Landau and Savedoff took dozens of pieces from its collection.
The most valuable pieces, generally letters written by well-known figures in history, have been returned. Malley said crude attempts to erase museum marks are obvious. Experts in Washington are still cataloging and have yet to return other historical documents considered less unique, such as menus for state dinners.
The letters already returned are generally routine in nature, Malley said. They are valuable not for their content but for their authors. Washington's letter was written to his secretary of the treasury, Oliver Wolcott Jr., and was concerned with unremarkable business of their new government.
"It is not that the content is necessarily earthshaking," Malley said. "A lot of the letters are just what we could call routine correspondence. They were just normal, everyday letters, But the attraction comes with the association with an historical figure,"
Another document returned to the society is a personal letter written by John J. Audubon to a friend named Gideon Smith in 1843. The subjects of the Marie Antoinette and Napoleon Bonaparte letters were not immediately clear.
Many of the society's historic letters — such as the Marie Antoinette letter — that might not normally be associated with a Connecticut musem were donated by Connecticut collectors, Malley said.
Papers on file in federal court in Maryland show that the FBI also recovered documents stolen from historical societies or museums in Vermont, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. Among the stolen materials were documents written by Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and President Abraham Lincoln.
The Lincoln document, signed by the president in 1861, authorizes a grant of land to a veteran of the War of 1812.
With their collections intact again, Malley said museums are now working to make sure they are not victims of theft again. The answer probably lies in the digitalization of their collections.
"I know that every institution that was involved and most other comparable institutions are looking at this and kind of reassessing security vs. access," he said. "That's kind of the two-edged sword because if you can't provide the access, why have material. And at the same time, as the steward of the material, you have to take precautions to protect the material from damage, mishandling or theft."