Theft of a "truly breathtaking" array of rare documents worth millions
August 6, 2011 2:14 PM   Subscribe

Barry Landau, "America's Presidential Historian," collector, author, and expert on White House ephemera, and one Jason Savedoff, a Canadian golden boy who occasionally went by the name of J-Swing at my old stomping grounds, and who has assumed a number of aliases since, have been charged with "conspiring to steal historical documents from museums in Maryland and New York, and selling them for profit." Investigation has revealed further complications.
posted by Hyperbolus (24 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I like that Jason Savedoff is giving his fiercest "Blue Steel" to the camera in his mugshot.
posted by xingcat at 2:18 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Ha ha! I know! Hilarious.
posted by Hyperbolus at 2:22 PM on August 6, 2011

Fascinating stuff. In a lot of cases it can be tough to tell exactly what is missing because places are 1) not always sure what they have and 2) hesitant to expose themselves as people who can get stuff stolen from them. I'll be curious to see where this goes. Nice post.
posted by jessamyn at 2:23 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

This story has been all over the local news here. It's very National Treasure"
posted by ShawnString at 2:44 PM on August 6, 2011

If you can do a reasonable impression of someone who has a good reason to be there, I don't think it would be too hard to steal documents from most archives. What I would think would be difficult would be selling the documents. People aren't at all interested in where you got it? Don't you have to prove provenance in order to show it's not forged?

I wonder if this is going to cause archives to tighten up their security procedures. The only place I've ever been where it's pretty intense is the National Archives in College Park, and they have resources that aren't available to your garden-variety historical society.
posted by craichead at 3:14 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

How exactly were they stealing the documents? The links in the OP mention stolen ID's and using false pretenses to gain access to the documents, but then what?
posted by I Havent Killed Anybody Since 1984 at 3:30 PM on August 6, 2011

Maybe they don't sell them so much as use them as collateral to leverage loans or other deals. I would guess an appraiser would not look as closely as a buyer.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:00 PM on August 6, 2011

It might be like some art theft. Stuff is stolen to eventually ransom back, or stuff is stolen just to posses it rather than a monetary gain.
posted by edgeways at 4:14 PM on August 6, 2011

Wow. It seems I've actually spoken on the phone with Jason Savedoff, a month or so prior to his arrest. At least it must be the same fellow, as he was using the name Jason James and claimed to be somehow related to Barry Landau (can't recall if he implied he was a relative or just an associate). My group had given Landau temporary courtesy access to a digital archive that he was presumably using in connection with his book research, and Jason whoever was trying to talk us into extending the access. We did so once, but turned him down the second time he tried it, phoning a colleague just a few days before his July 9 arrest. Guess it's time to check the server logs to see whether the point might have been to vacuum up the whole archive... though I can't imagine anyone making money off of having on a local drive, it's not something you'd peddle to collectors.
posted by Creosote at 4:22 PM on August 6, 2011 [6 favorites]

A number of thefts of this type seem merely to have been obsessive, possibly symptomatic of kleptomania.
posted by dhartung at 4:25 PM on August 6, 2011

Guess it's time to check the server logs to see whether the point might have been to vacuum up the whole archive... though I can't imagine anyone making money off of having on a local drive, it's not something you'd peddle to collectors.

Do and if you can access the docs these two did, check your collection just to be safe, if anything it shows diligence. They could have been researching thier next heist (if this correct of these two) and seraching for juicy stuff.

There is a special place in library hell for people who do this. And if caught and sent to prison the old "I stole dolly madisons guest book " will not impress the local personalities and no library gig for them, there is that.

It is very well possible they are personal collector thiefs. my limited foray with these types is that they get caught if it becomes a mania because the thefts can be traced when discovered with suprising results, librarians can make good detectives.
posted by clavdivs at 4:44 PM on August 6, 2011

They could have been researching thier next heist

In fact that is quite possible; they could have determined which repositories have what documents via our holdings. Nothing they couldn't have found in print, but the digital search would have saved plenty of trips to a library. So... I've already sent a note to colleagues in D.C. who would know how to contact the investigators in case this would be any help to them in reconstructing just what the pair was up to in recent months.
posted by Creosote at 5:31 PM on August 6, 2011 [3 favorites]

People who steal items like this are the lowest of the low, because they're stealing the past from everyone for their own selfish gain and delight. In small collections or libraries they can't police researchers that well because they don't have the money and if you're getting folios with multiple documents out, it would often be quite easy to take one - it might not be noticed until the next researcher is looking for that particular document. I was working in a library in Belfast last year where they couldn't find certain items for me and over the several days I was there it seemed more and more likely some wanker had just walked off with them. None of the items was that valuable but they probably would have made enough to make it worth some selfish bastard's while.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 6:13 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the most compelling & eerily memorable true crime (!) tales I've read recently is this one - published 2001 - & very much on topic. (Amazon blurb):

"In 1995, a watchful patron alerted a librarian at Johns Hopkins University that another patron, a middle-aged and well-dressed man, was behaving suspiciously. The librarian called the police, who discovered that the man, a Floridian named Gilbert Bland, had cut four maps from a set of rare books. On investigation, the police were able to attribute dozens of similar thefts to Bland, thefts that had taken place at a score of the country's best-regarded--and, presumably, best-protected--scholarly institutions.

Like countless other readers, Miles Harvey, a writer for Outside magazine, encountered the news of Bland's arrest as a brief item in the back pages of the morning newspaper. The story stayed with Harvey, who wondered why otherwise law-abiding people behave so badly around antiquities. In The Island of Lost Maps, a wonderfully rich excursion into the demimonde of what might be called cartographomania, Harvey follows Bland's tracks from library to library, reconstructing the crimes of the man he deems the Al Capone of map theft, following the contours of Bland's complex, sinister character. Along the way, Harvey examines the history of cartography generally, and the ravenous market for old maps--once the quiet province of a few knowing collectors, now invaded by speculators. These maps are just another corner of the overpriced status-symbol commodity market--and one that richly rewarded Bland's nefarious work.

posted by Jody Tresidder at 7:05 PM on August 6, 2011

Art crime in the USA is treated as any other crime, there are no special laws for it, so the penalties are usually pretty light and the risk/reward high. Even within the FBI there are only a handful of specialists devoted to it, and they just sort of fell into it, they are not specially trained or anything, it's informal mentoring. Art crime is treated lightly by law enforcement since they have more "serious" cases like murder and drugs to deal with. There isn't even an official database to track stolen art. Thus art crime has boomed in recent years, most of it stolen from people's homes, most of it never recovered.

In Europe, where art crime has a long history and there is a lot more available, they have much tougher laws and special enforcement units and coordinated international co-operation.
posted by stbalbach at 7:35 PM on August 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

"America's Presidential Historian" my ass. I've never heard of him, he has no significant publications, he is a self-promoting oddball.
posted by LarryC at 8:17 PM on August 6, 2011 [4 favorites]

Who is Barry Landau?
posted by mek at 1:58 AM on August 7, 2011

I've never heard of him either, and that website of his reads like pure fantasy of the Walter Mitty sort. Friend of presidents of both parties, a collection of over a million items, and one cheesy non-scholarly book to his name.

He's a fraud. Now it seems that he may be a thief as well.

I agree that there is a special circle of hell for people who steal from public archives. Hope this douchebag is properly disgraced, since what he seems to value most is being a bigshot (in his own mind).

America's presidential historian, that's rich.
posted by spitbull at 6:27 AM on August 7, 2011

Thank you for that article mek. It confirms many of my suspcions regarding Landau. Clearly this guy is a joke and a sociopathic, fast-talking grifter. The constant stealing. The gaps in his background. His suspicious finances. The constant lies regarding his interactions with political types over the past few decades. The lack of any serious publications and how part of his "passion for history" seems to revolve around social climbing and occasional sensationalism. His inflated sense of self-importance which he either genuinely believes in or knows to be a joke but finds useful as bait. The fact that many are taken in by his unctuous charm, but just as many have that almost inexplicable aversion to him upon meeting for the first time. He's like something out of a Sinclair Lewis novel! It's great, I find it fascinating.

And how and why do Landau and Savedoff know each other? It's pure specualtion, but I immediately suspected that there was a sexual element to their partnership. Very few people live with their boss platonically (or at all), and it would make sense as both have something to gain from this relationship.
posted by Hyperbolus at 8:04 AM on August 7, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wow - do yourself a favor - and look through the photos on Landau's website - both those under the "presidential" tab & "Barry H. Landau & Friends"!

Amazing "Zelig" quality to them...

This is such a brilliant post (& links).

And how and why do Landau and Savedoff know each other? It's pure specualtion, but I immediately suspected that there was a sexual element to their partnership.

I thought that too, Hyperbolus.

The WashPo article mek linked was, I initially thought, being a little cute sprinkling - I assumed - various coded references to Landau's private life; known for having "a poodle", brought "cupcakes" to a historical society meeting, known as "diva". But if these are "merely the facts", it sounds like Landau at least openly affected/had a camp persona.

Another line in the terrific WashPo piece made me wonder whether it was intended as a fact, or was deliberately sly:

"others said Landau was well-connected. Actor Brian Dennehy told The Post in 2005 that Landau “is always good about providing liaison with the White House.”

If I am aware that Dennehy was the actor who was famously caught making up very tall stories about himself - about having served in action in Vietnam, then so does the Washington Post!
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:45 AM on August 7, 2011

"so is the Washington Post"
posted by Jody Tresidder at 8:47 AM on August 7, 2011

Jody Tresidder: I hadn't looked at the photos section. Al Pacino! Alec Baldwin! James Earl Jones! Michael Fucking Bolton for some unknown reason! All posing with that one shitty book Landau wrote!

One good thing about the internet is that a website will frequently reveal whether or not someone is the real deal. Any whiff of amateurishness in web design and/or content coupled with grand claims about being "America's Presidential Historian" should send anyone running.

Anyway. I've been obsessed with this case for the past couple of days. I should probably go do something more substantial now.
posted by Hyperbolus at 10:05 AM on August 7, 2011 [1 favorite]

Most stolen list of authors (NYT)

Damn beatniks!
posted by warbaby at 9:01 PM on August 7, 2011

How exactly were they stealing the documents?

Prosecutors say Landau wore specially made coats with deep, document-hiding pockets.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 7:16 AM on August 9, 2011

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