Published: November 27, 2012
The sentencing earlier this month of Jason Savedoff to a year and a day in prison closes another chapter in the sordid story of stolen manuscripts and paper items from historical societies up and down the East Coast.
The Connecticut Historical Society was one of the least hardest-hit as presidential scholar and memorabilia collector Barry Landau (sentenced earlier this year to seven years in prison) and Savedoff only spent about four days here in 2011, combing through items in the society’s archive. Still, dozens of manuscripts were taken from the society, from letters signed by famous people to presidential menus and other ephemeral items.
Richard C. Malley, the society’s head of research and collections, noted that the first batch of stolen items had been returned to the society by the National Archives earlier this summer. The Archives were charged with combing through dozens of boxes recovered from Landau’s home and finding out which institutions they belonged to and returning them. Highest priority was given to the more valuable items, such as manuscripts and autograph-signed letters from known figures, and those type of items comprised the bulk of what was returned locally.
Some of the items taken and returned to the society were a letter from the Emperor Napoleon (Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew), a letter from Marie Antoinette, a notice of an amendment to an import duty act signed by Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, dated 1792, and a letter from President George Washington to Secretary of Treasury Oliver Wolcott Jr, undated, but probably circa 1795‹6.
As cataloging of items was different in the Nineteenth Century, and some collections were not line-item catalogued, Malley said it was difficult to know exactly how many items were stolen and that in the end, they got back more than they realized was missing. Fortunately, most of the society’s material had a discrete stamp indicating it belonged to the society, so their material was fairly easy to spot, even though in some cases, the stamp had been partially erased by the thieves.
In the four days the pair visited the Connecticut Historical Society in January and March of 2011, Malley said, “They went through quite a bit of material.” All the items they looked at were in closed stacks so they perused the card catalog and then filled out a call slip for particular items, which a society staffer would then retrieve from a private area. At the time, the area where anyone researching the society’s archives worked at had 4- to 6-foot tables where several people could sit at the same time. One of the changes made here in the wake of these thefts, Malley said, has been to set up individual work areas with enough space around each so documents cannot be passed easily between people working together.
“We’ve certainly taken a lot of pains to review where we are and where we ought to be,” Malley said, “I’m sure our fellow institutions who suffered losses are doing likewise.”
The National Archives still has a lot more material to sift through and return. Among them are likely menus from presidential, senatorial and gubernatorial dinners from the society’s collections, along with other ephemera that Landau was interested in while visiting here. On an interesting aside, Malley says Landau did pull him aside during one of his visits to show him a menu for Lincoln’s second inaugural ball in the society’s collection that Landau said was in need of conservation treatment. In the end, the society did conserve that document so that future generations can appreciate it.
Calling this saga a cautionary tale, Malley says the society and others walk a fine line between their role as stewards of these original documents in preserving them and keeping them safe with their desire to share these with the public. “The crux of the matter philosophically is the whole nature of preservation and access and sometimes the dynamic opposition between these two,” he said.
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