60 Minutes: US Historical Documents On eBay & National Archives Robbed

60 Minutes: Stealing History

America collects its important historical artifacts in the National Archives. But as Bob Simon reported for 60 Minutes, keeping track of these millions of documents—everything from the Constitution to Michael Jackson’s moonwalking shoes patent—is no easy feat. Thieves are interested in these priceless treasures, and among them is Barry Landau, who pulled off some remarkable heists.

60 Minutes: US National Archives & The President’s Table Review

60 Minutes: US Historical Documents On eBay & National Archives Robbed

60 Minutes followed the case of Barry Landau, a presidential historian who was really a con man, stealing valuable documents from the National Archives.

Barry Landau is a presidential historical who was invited to the White House on more than one occasion. His interest in the nation’s highest office was even documented in a book, The President’s Table, which landed him on various national news programs.

But more recently, Landau has been in the headlines for another reason: he was convicted of stealing thousands of items from those National Archives. Among his gets were documents signed by everyone from Voltaire to Thomas Jefferson, stolen from U.S. libraries.

60 Minutes: National Archives Con Man

US Attorney Rod Rosenstein said that Landau used his reputation to pull off these heists as a con man. That reputation was not exactly earned, either–his claim that he had worked under every president since Lyndon Johnson turned out to be patently false.

It sounds like this guy was making everything up. Landau’s case tipped investigators that thieves are targeting collections of US documents. The inspector general of the National Archives runs a recovery team that can pursue stolen documents. That sounds like a movie plot.

The inspector said that Landau succeeded by taking his time and making himself a presence at libraries throughout the country, including at the Maryland Historical Society.

60 Minutes: Barry Landau Custom Clothing For Thief

Pat Anderson from the historical society said Landau and his accomplice would get into people’s good graces by bribing them with treats on their visits. But the society got suspicious on what would be Landau’s final visit. Employees called the police when he was discovered stealing.

Landau and his accomplice had 60 pieces from the collection, including souvenirs from presidential inaugurations. There were even tickets to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment. The low security at Maryland’s facility may have made it easier.

But the real trick to Landau’s operation was custom clothing. He had a tailor customize suits with hidden pockets, so he could smuggle the documents out on his person, undetected. There were several garments in the collection.

60 Minutes: Stolen American Historical Artifacts

The inspector general found this detail fascinating, and said that authorities can learn something from every criminal’s M.O. This case resulted in a search warrant on Landau’s New York apartment. That was a big turning point, because the team recovered 10,000 items that had been stolen.

These valuable items are hard to quantify, and included 300 pieces of historical significance. Letters from Mark Twain, Isaac Newton, and Benjamin Franklin’s own eulogy for himself were among the finds.

Can you imagine how much time and effort Landau put into this whole operation? I guess that shows real commitment to his scheme. But what was he planning to do with all this stuff?

60 Minutes: White House Secretary Betty Curry Robbed

Landau even became friends with Betty Curry, Bill Clinton’s former secretary, who invited him to her home. He smuggled out three suitcases’ worth of items, including Clinton’s own presidential speeches.

In summer 2012, 60 Minutes approached Barry Landau on the street in new York City, but he did not want to talk to reporters. I guess he did not have a book to sell…he would not speak to Bob Simon.

Other thieves included an employee of the National Archives, who sold original recordings under his watch on eBay. Another employee made off with a bunch of presidential pardons and space exploration photos.

60 Minutes: Historical Documents On eBay

Now, the special investigations team frequents eBay to locate important historical documents. They conduct sting operations and are welcome in a variety of places where feds aren’t usually a welcome sight, like gun shows.

While many documents may be for sale at annual historical events, the recovery team is on the scene to keep an eye out for stolen or missing materials. The Wright Brothers patents is among one of the missing documents, which was discovered missing at least 10 years ago.

Some of these missing artifacts turn up on a black market in eastern Europe. As for Landau, he got a seven-year prison sentence in 2012. After his release, he is banned from libraries, museums, and other places where artifacts are collected or stored. I guess his days as a presidential historian are over.

60 Minutes: National Archives Security

Meanwhile, the facilities that call these types of collections home are tightening security. The Maryland Historical Society no longer allows jackets in the reading room. That’s a small price to pay to safeguard America’s historical documents.

“We never have all of it, which is what makes what survives so much more important,” Pat Anderson said.

As a postscript, inspector general Paul Brachfeld was put on administrative leave, in part for “leaking sensitive information” that was included in the story.

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About the author

Pat Howard is a writer from St. Louis. He was born with a remote control in his hand, and is grateful to finally have a haven at Recapo for his pathological love of daytime television.

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