January 16, 2014

Document Theft at the Maryland Historical Society: The Thief that Gives Back?

by Kirsten Hower

Normally when something is stolen from a cultural institution, the odds of the objects being returned is minimal, and often nothing is returned.  It is nearly unheard of for the objects to be returned…let alone for additional objects to be brought along in the return.  Oddly enough this is the case with museums in Maryland and New York, and document thieves Barry H. Landau and Jason James Savedoff.

Over the course of eight months, Landau and Savedoff stole ten thousand historical documents from cultural institutions such as the New York Historical Society and the Maryland Historical Society.  One of the documents stolen is a letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones, a naval fighter in the American Revolution, dated April 1, 1780 which was stolen from the New York Historical Society.  The thousands of other historical documents included letters and other written pieces by Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. 

It was not until July 2011 that both Landau and Savedoff were caught sneaking documents into specially tailored coats at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, Maryland.  Had it not been for the vigilant observations of one of the Society’s employees, the two men may never have been caught and the extent of their thefts never uncovered.  However, they were caught and subsequently charged for the thefts resulting in a seven year prison sentence for Landau and a one year prison sentence for Savedoff, who was released this past November.

What is particularly interesting about this case was that once the documents were returned, additional documents were discovered.  The “Baltimore Sun” reported that ten percent of the returned documents do not have traceable origins and are therefore homeless for the time being.  After temporarily staying at the National Archives in College Park, the documents were taken to the Maryland Historical Society in August where they will remain until they are claimed by their rightful owners.

News source:
Jessica Anderson, The Baltimore Sun, "Theft case leaves additional documents at Maryland Historical Society," December 31, 2013