Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff are free on bond


Presidential historian Barry Landau addresses the staff of Google -- and flubs some facts about the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration and Presidential recordkeeping -- as part of the Authors@Google program, Mountain View, California, 25 February 2009. Does anything about this man -- his face, his voice, his mannerisms -- seem familiar to you? If so, start checking your registration logs and reviewing your security videos.

On 9 July,
Barry Landau, a noted collector of Presidential ephemera and author of The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy, and his research associate, Jason Savedoff, were arrested after staff at the Maryland Historical Society observed Savedoff take an historical document, conceal it in a portfolio, and remove it from the research room. The Baltimore Police discovered approximately 60 documents in a locker assigned to Savedoff.

The arrest of Landau and Savedoff sparked an investigation into their activities and a sweeping search of Landau's apartment. A host of disturbing things came to light:
  • Savedoff was apprehended in a Maryland Historical Society restroom and was flushing a document down a toilet as he was taken into police custody.
  • Only some of the documents in Savedoff's locker were held by the Maryland Historical Society. Others are the property of the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the Connecticut Historical Society, and Vassar College.
  • Investigators found a 1780 letter from Benjamin Franklin to John Paul Jones in Landau's apartment. The letter is owned by by the New-York Historical Society.
  • Landau and Savedoff visited the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library, which is part of the NARA system, in December 2010 and allegedly stole signed copies of seven speeches that Roosevelt delivered. Four of the speeches were later sold to a New York dealer for $35,000.
  • While a guest at the home of Betty Currie, President Bill Clinton's former secretary, Landau may have taken a book of speeches bearing Clinton's signature.
  • Landau's claims of working for various Presidents -- including claims made in the Authors@Google speech embedded above -- are, in all likelihood, exaggerations or outright falsehoods.
On 28 July, Landau and Savedoff, who also face state charges, were indicted on charges relating to the theft of materials from the Maryland Historical Society, Roosevelt Presidential Library, and the New-York Historical Society. Savedoff, a dual Canadian-U.S. national, was released on bond in late July, but Landau remained in federal custody while investigators combed through the masses of ephemera in his Manhattan apartment.

Last Friday, a Federal court judge allowed Landau to post bond and return to his home -- provided that he submits to electronic monitoring, does not use the Internet, does not sell any assets without first securing approval to do so, and cannot have any contact with cultural heritage institutions or his co-defendant.

At the hearing, prosecutors noted that they found a vast array of other questionable items in his apartment. They have traced over 200 of them to repositories in five states and Washington, D.C., and possibly, Cambridge University. Many others are, in the words of a prosecutor, "
not the kind of things that are accessible — legally accessible — on the open market": letters written by Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Antoinette, Sir Issac Newton, Ludwig von Beethoven, and a host of prominent scientists, artists, inventors, writers, and political leaders.

If Landau is indeed guilty -- the evidence is damning -- we may be looking at a criminal career that spans decades and continents. Dozens of repositories may ultimately find that they have been victimized. All of us should be mindful of the possibility that other smiling, cupcake-bearing career criminals may be out there . . . and that they may visit our own institutions sometime soon.

Given that providing access to our holdings is one of our core responsibilities, keeping our holdings 100 percent safe from theft is never possible. However, there are lots of things that we can do to discourage casual thievery and insure that the more determined criminals get caught, and you might want to check out the following resources:

3 comments:

Larry Cebula said...

By what standard is this clown a "noted" historian, let alone (as his website claims) "America's presidential historian?" He wrote one silly, non-peer reviewed book about food served at the White House. Relentless self-promotion does not a historian make.

l'Archivista said...

Larry, you're not the only person who feels that way (see http://hnn.us/node/141008 and http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/oped/bs-ed-historians-20110809,0,5700631.story ).

It's absolutely true that Landau's not an historian in the academic sense, and he's also -- as evidenced by his remarks @ Google -- a social climber and a name dropper. However, when I quit my Ph.D. program (one of the best life decisions I've ever made, BTW), I realized that one of the many minor benefits was that I would no longer have to devote a lot of energy to policing the historian/non-historian border.

It's my job as an archivist to focus on people's research needs, not their academic qualifications. I've met several Ph.D.-bearing historians who produce utter tripe, and I've encountered several people who don't have history degrees but who have immersed themselves in the the archival record and the secondary literature and have produced worthwhile and provocative scholarship.

Do I think Barry Landau is a first-rate historian? No. Am I going to do anything other than roll my eyes when I'm reminded yet again that he refers to himself as "America's Presidential Historian"? Probably not.

Landau may be a self-promoting coffee-table book author, but that's not a crime. Stealing letters, speeches, and other records from historical societies, government archives, and college and university special collections most certainly is, and that's where I prefer to focus my attention.

Anonymous said...

I think it would be reasonable to call Landau a "self-styled historian" or a "presidential writer." He is not an historian and it is unfair to historians to refer to him as such.