Saturday, November 5, 2011

Jason Savedoff pleads guilty

Last Thursday, Jason James Savedoff, one of the two men caught attempting to steal documents from the Maryland Historical Society on 9 July 2011, pled guilty to charges of conspiring to steal materials from the Maryland Historical Society, the Connecticut Historical Society, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library. He will be sentenced on 10 February 2012. He faces a maximum of sentence of 15 years in prison and a maximum fine of $500,000.

Savedoff's plea agreement states that his criminal misdeeds were performed "solely at the direction of" Barry Landau, the prominent collector with whom he was apprehended. Landau has pled not guilty to all of the charges lodged against him, and his lawyer insists that Savedoff masterminded the theft of the mass of materials found in the Manhattan apartment the two men shared and pled guilty in an effort "to save his own hide." Landau's lawyer went on to assert that prosecutors had no evidence proving any "misappropriation of documents before Mr. Savedoff came into his life a year and a half ago."

Forgive my skepticism of this claim. First, investigators found approximately 10,000 documents in Landau's apartment. Busy as Landau and Savedoff seem to have been, it just doesn't seem likely that they amassed this volume of material in a mere eighteen months. Second, as evidenced by articles in the Washington Post and the Daily Beast, Landau has long had, to put it charitably, a most flexible relationship with the truth.

In the meantime, the Federal Bureau of Investigation press release summarizing Savedoff's plea agreement (the full text of which I'm having difficulty accessing via PACER) contains details about his and Landau's activities that should make archivists, manuscript curators, and other cultural heritage professionals sit up and pay attention:
  • "Savedoff, under the direction of his co-conspirator, conducted research, including via the Internet, to identify collections containing valuable documents, which, when located, were targeted for theft." Making finding aids accessible via the Internet has many, many pluses, but those of us who hold materials that have market value should also be keenly aware that may also increase security risks.
  • "Savedoff and his co-conspirator visited numerous museums posing as researchers; accessed collections of documents which they had determined to be of significant value; reviewed the documents from the collections; and used various techniques to steal them. These techniques included concealing documents inside sports coats and other outerwear which had been modified to contain hidden pockets, as well as distracting museum curators to disguise their actions." Some repositories simply bar researchers from wearing sport coats and like garments while in their research rooms, but many women's suit coats are designed to be worn without a blouse underneath. In other instances, research rooms are so cold that rules concerning sport or suit coats or even outerwear can't be reasonably enforced. The overwhelming majority of researchers who wear sport or suit coats or other garments with pockets are decent, honest people, but all of them should be monitored closely.
  • "A checklist was prepared for each stolen document which identified the author and date of the document; the collection from which it was stolen; whether the museum card catalogue had been collected; whether there existed any microfilm or other 'finding aid' for the document at the museum; the nature of any markings on the document: and whether any museum markings had been removed from the document." Wow. I'm simultaneously impressed by the strength of the recordkeeping urge, praying that these checklists are now in the hands of prosecutors, and agog at the monumental hubris and stupidity that prompted the creation of these records.
  • "In an effort to conceal the theft, Savedoff and his co-conspirator often took the card catalogue entries and other “finding aids,” making it difficult for the museum to discover that an item was missing." And here's the plus side of putting finding aids and other access tools online: it's a lot easier to swipe a paper finding aid or catalog card than to destroy every electronic copy of a descriptive resource. Those of us who still have lots of single-copy, paper-based finding aids need to think seriously about devoting some time to converting finding aids that make mention of valuable materials to electronic form -- even quick-and-dirty scans to PDF, TIFF, or JPEG format should be sufficient to document ownership of an item in the event that both the item and the finding aid disappear.
Finally, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's Office of the Inspector General, which is leading the effort to identify the approximately 10,000 documents found in Landau's apartment and return them to the repositories from which they were stolen. Tricia Bishop of the Baltimore Sun recently wrote a great article highlighting the work being done by Office of the Inspector General staff and the scant attention and resources that American law enforcement agencies typically give to crimes involving cultural heritage materials. It's fascinating and, all too often, frustrating reading. Let's hope that the amount of media attention focusing on what is, in all likelihood, the largest archival theft in United States history changes this state of affairs.

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