On the Trail of Pilfered History

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National Archives Building, Washington D.C.

On the face of it, the Washington Capital Area Historical Autograph and Manuscript Show seemed like many such shows held around the country each year. Some 20 top dealers gathered at an Alexandria, Va., hotel on Dec. 9 to peddle thousands of autographs, letters and official papers of the famous — many of the more expensive items locked in glass cases. But among the customers wandering through the exhibits this time were two investigators from the National Archives. They passed out brochures on how to spot historical documents stolen from the government and chatted with the dealers to let them know that the feds are now becoming more interested in retrieving the valuable loot. The investigators also quietly browsed through the wares on display, looking for anything that might belong to the Archives.

> During this particular visit the document hunters found none, but they expect other forays will turn up important contraband. The investigators are part of Operation Historic Protector, which the Archive's Inspector General's Office launched in November to combat what many fear is a growing threat to the federal government's historical repository, as well as to state archives and university libraries: the pilfering of old letters, documents, maps, photographs, books and other historical artifacts.

The National Archives has beefed up security in recent years, with video cameras and staffers watching outside researchers who review material in its reading rooms. But the Archives and other repositories around the country have suffered a number of heists in recent years.

Last September, Edward Forbes Smiley III, a Massachusetts dealer, was sentenced to 42 months in prison for stealing 98 rare maps from university libraries in the U.S. and the United Kingdom between 1998 and 2005. Howard Harner, a Virginia relics dealer, was sentenced to two years in prison in 2005 for walking off with more than 100 Civil War-era documents during visits over a six-year period to the National Archives' Washington, D.C., facility. (Less than half of them have been recovered.) That same year, former Clinton national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger was fined $50,000 after he pleaded guilty to stuffing into his coat pockets and walking out with classified counter-terrorism documents he'd been reviewing at the National Archives for his testimony before the 9/11 commission. (An Inspector General's report on the case, which was finally released on Wednesday, states that on one of his four visits to the Archives in Washington, on Oct. 2, 2003, Berger took four documents outside during a break and hid them "under a trailer" at a construction site near the facility, then "retrieved the documents" later in the day after he had finished his work in the Archives. Berger never explained in court why he took the papers. )

"We do have a problem," says Paul Brachfeld, a former Secret Service agent who's the Archive's inspector general. Just how big the problem is, however, is something nobody really knows. The National Archives has about 10 billion documents that take up 28.4 million cubic feet in three dozen facilities around the country, plus another 543,000 assorted artifacts like paintings and mementos. "We don't know what's missing here because we don't know what we have," Brachfeld told TIME. "We obviously know we have the Declaration of Independence. But there is such a volume of documents here that we don't have an item-level inventory."

Still, a lot may be missing. For the past two years, a team of manuscript experts from the National Coalition for History, an advocacy group for history organizations on Capitol Hill, has been screening the printed catalogues and websites of about 60 top dealers around the country. The screeners found more than 370 suspicious documents among the some 90,000 they saw for sale and forwarded reports on them to the National Archives.

Since May 2004, the Archives has received — both from the coalition and from other people phoning in leads — reports on a total of 610 suspicious documents for sale, which have helped investigators retrieve 19 documents that had either been stolen from the Archives or never made it to the repository in the first place. And Brachfeld revealed to TIME that his investigators are probing a separate "major case," in which "almost a hundred documents" are believed to have been stolen by a National Archives employee. Brachfeld would not discuss details of that case because "it is awaiting prosecution."

In an age of eBay and PBS's Antiques Roadshow, where people have come to believe that every relic has more than sentimental value, it's not entirely surprising that the stolen document market is heating up. In the past, a handful of major auction houses handled the bidding on historic documents. "Now, with the World Wide Web, your market is not just who is subscribing to a preprinted catalogue from Christie or Sotheby's," says Bruce Craig, the outgoing director of the National Coalition for History. Craig adds that Internet bidders tend to pay "far more than a document is worth because they get sort of caught up in the auction frenzy."

While greed motivates most document thieves, it's not the only reason key materials go missing. Archives investigators also suspect some federal documents never make it to their facilities because government officials weed them out to try to sanitize history. Whatever the motive, missing documents can be maddening for historians. "Any document that is not available to historians means that the story is just that less complete," says Lee Formwalt, executive director of the Organization of American Historians.

(I felt that frustration researching my biography of the famed World War I air general Billy Mitchell. Records of Mitchell's messy divorce from his first wife were missing from court files in Milwaukee, where the proceedings were held. Copies of Mitchell's divorce records also were supposed to be in his Army file at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, but they, too, were gone. I could never determine who had the sticky fingers.)

Brachfeld says reputable document dealers have cooperated, alerting his office when sellers come to them with questionable papers. "They don't want to be party to trafficking in stolen material," he says. Often, though, it can be difficult even for seasoned dealers to determine what's been stolen. No more than 3% of the documents the federal government creates are important enough for the National Archives to retain them. And the Archives itself wasn't created until 1934. Before that, individual federal departments kept their records and many of the agencies were sloppy, letting retired officials take the important ones home so the material never got to the Archives in the first place. Presidential signatures can command high prices but often they're on documents of no historical significance. "Not every letter that George Washington wrote deserves to be in the National Archives," says Edward Bomsey, an autographs dealer in Annandale, Va. The Archives also doesn't have the right to material that is considered private property, such as Presidential letters to constituents.

Operation Historic Protector is a small initiative at the moment. Brachfeld has only two of his 16-member staff assigned to it, and so far the Office of Management and Budget has refused his request for funding increases to beef up the team. But he says he hopes to build up his force along with a network of outside artifacts experts around the country who will tip off his agents "every time they find something suspicious. And we swoop down."