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C. Fraser Smith: Stealing our history

We could think of it as the Cupcake Capers.

Something delicious must have been involved in the work of Barry Landau, the now thoroughly confessed thief who made his guilt official in federal court this week.

He was accused of lifting a million dollars’ worth of the nation’s documentary heritage, the bits and pieces of the national mosaic, documents that help historians construct and refine our national identity.

His was a truly breathtaking haul, prosecutors said.

Among the purloined papers:

-Annotated copies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inaugural addresses.

-A 1780 letter from Benjamin Franklin to naval hero John Paul Jones about gunpowder deliveries from the French.

-A land grant record signed by Abraham Lincoln to a former member of the Maryland militia who served in the War of 1812.

Skill, guile and cupcakes

A man of some skill and guile apparently, Landau succeeded in distracting custodians with sophisticated ruses such as — get this — cupcakes.

I am here to tell you nothing short of red velvet would have worked, with me, at least.

You may have wondered — if you’ve ever done research in libraries — why the document police look at you with undisguised suspicion or why borrowers are seated so close to them and to the guards.

It’s because people like Landau think they can make money in the marketplace off of such things.

And, it’s because the people who feel responsible for the nation’s documentary treasure are determined to preserve it.

They want to preserve the ability of historians to plumb the depths of meaning in human events — when there are records to plumb. And the library gendarmes are on hyper alert to preserve as well as to help.

It’s important to safeguard all of this material because we can always learn more about who we are. One of the stolen documents records a gift of land to a Maryland veteran of the War of 1812. What individual or national story might be illuminated by such a record? What heretofore un-posed question might it answer?

A biographer might want to see, for another example, what emphasis FDR added to a speech, what point he wanted to make — or to avoid making.

Landau was literally standing in the way of history written on the basis of deep research and thoughtful consideration.

Money, not cachet

Every bit of evidence has meaning to the right researcher.

At the Maryland Historical Society’s H. Furlong Baldwin Library last July, David Angerhofer, one of the staff members, saw something alarming.

Landau’s accomplice, Jason Savedoff, slipped one of the library’s documents into a folder. Angerhofer called the police. They found 78 other about to-be-lifted materials.

Landau had boasted of having one of the largest collections of Oval Office artifacts. These holdings gave him a certain cachet, no doubt, and put various celebrities in his social circle. But he told authorities his motivation in this grand heist was money. His overall stash was worth an estimated $1 million.

He arrived in court this week wearing a long black overcoat, using a cane and wearing a black patch over his right eye. He complained of sleepless nights. This problem could get worse.

Cupcakes may not work with the judge who could sentence him to as many as 15 years in prison.

C. Fraser Smith is senior news analyst at WYPR-FM. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record.His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.