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Presidential historian pleads guilty to document theft scheme

Presidential historian pleads guilty to document theft scheme

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A memorabilia collector and self-styled expert on presidential history pleaded guilty Tuesday to conspiring to steal thousands of documents signed by leaders throughout U.S. history.

Barry Landau

Barry Landau, whose knowledge of the White House earned him appearances on network morning shows, admitted in the plea to taking documents from the Maryland Historical Society and conspiring with his assistant to steal documents from several institutions with the intention of selling them.

Thousands of documents were seized by authorities over the summer from the 63-year-old Landau’s artifact-lined Manhattan apartment. Prosecutors say he schemed for years, if not decades, to steal valuable documents.

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

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.

They had 79 documents hidden in a computer bag when they were arrested, according to Landau’s plea. About 60 belonged to the Maryland society, including a land grant signed by President Abraham Lincoln worth $300,000 and presidential inaugural ball invitations and programs worth $500,000.

According to Landau’s plea agreement, he stole historical documents from museums in Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut, and sold some for profit.

To conceal thefts, Landau and Savedoff often took the card catalogue entries and other “finding aids,” making it difficult for museums to discover that an item was missing.

In his plea, Landau disputes that Savedoff was acting at the older man’s direction when he committed the crimes.

In the weeks after Landau’s arrest, the FBI seized 10,000 documents and objects of cultural heritage from his Manhattan apartment. So far, National Archives and Records Administration investigators had traced more than 4,000 to libraries and other repositories, according to court documents. Those documents were signed by historical figures ranging from George Washington to German philosopher Karl Marx, according to Landau’s plea.

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

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

Landau portrayed himself as an expert on presidential history and etiquette, and he was quoted in articles and interviewed on television programs.

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.

David S. Ferriero, archivist of the United States, said in a statement Tuesday evening that, “I am outraged that Mr. Landau who fashioned himself as a Presidential historian violated the public trust at many of our nation’s greatest historical repositories.”

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