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After Plea, A Hunt For Stolen Documents’ Owners

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BALTIMORE (AP) — A guilty plea from a presidential memorabilia collector and author in a scheme to steal from unsuspecting archives for profit leaves investigators with a hunt for the owners of thousands of documents.

More than 10,000 documents were seized from Barry Landau’s Manhattan apartment over the summer and 4,000 have already been traced to repositories throughout the United States. Landau and his assistant, Jason Savedoff, have both pleaded guilty theft of major artwork and conspiracy and face jail time and fines at sentencing.

Landau and Savedoff sought out collections based on the potential value of their contents, avoiding documents that had been copied to microfilm and were more likely to be missed, according to their pleas. The pair tried to curry favor with library staff with sweets and stashed documents in hidden pockets when staffers weren’t looking. They also would try to collect finding aids such as card catalog references and removed any inventory notes on the document itself, a process they called “performing surgery.”

The pair stole items such as letters signed by historical figures from both sides of the Atlantic and more ephemeral items, such as tickets or invitations to inaugurations and impeachments, some of which were displayed by the Maryland Historical Society on Tuesday. It was there that the pair’s scheme came to an end in July, when suspicious staffers spotted Savedoff slipping a document into a portfolio and called police.

National Archives Inspector General Paul Brachfeld was pleased with Landau’s plea on Tuesday.

“I look forward to his assistance finding the rightful owners,” he said.

Landau may have to pay restitution to cover documents that can’t be recovered and to repay people who returned items purchased from Landau fearing that they were stolen, prosecutor James Warwick said in court Tuesday. Investigators continue to recover documents related to this case, Brachfeld said.

If there isn’t evidence to link a document to an owner, it will go to the National Archives and Records Administration, which will then try to find the owner, Brachfeld said. The federal agency may digitally post as many of the documents as possible and make them available to archivists and people who can show that they may have been victims of Landau and Savedoff in controlled conditions, a kind of reverse “Antiques Roadshow,” Brachfeld said.

The case will reverberate throughout the archive community, which is already hurting financially, he said.

“People are worried about their collections,” Brachfeld said. “There may be another team out there somewhere doing the same thing or employee alone with records who is taking, taking, taking. These institutions are scared now.”

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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