Another reason not to become a "presidential historian"

Did any of you cats see this from yesterday?  Some idiots tried to rip off the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore:

An attorney for a presidential historian charged with the theft of such library treasures as papers signed by Abraham Lincoln and invitations to inaugural balls says there is no evidence against his client and he shouldn’t have been denied bail.

A request for a bail review was filed Wednesday for 63-year-old historian Barry Landau, attorney Steven D. Silverman said, calling the denial unreasonable.

Landau and Jason Savedoff, 24, both of New York City, were arrested and charged Saturday with theft of more than $100,000 after document thefts were reported at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore, according to court documents.

Landau is a published author whose works include “The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy,” released in 2007.

A historical society employee told police that Savedoff and Landau had been acting suspiciously and called authorities after he saw Savedoff conceal a document in a portfolio and walk it out of the library, according to court documents.

.       .       .       .       .      

A search of a locker at a building that Savedoff was carrying a key to turned up 60 documents, many of which Landau had signed out, according to court documents. The items included papers signed by Lincoln worth $300,000, numerous presidential inaugural ball invitations and programs worth $500,000, a signed Statue of Liberty commemoration valued at $100,000 and a signed Washington monument commemoration valued at $100,000, court documents state.

See what might tempt you if you don’t listen to Historiann, and you just write starf*cking books like Landau?  Historians serve their profession and themselves better if they go to archives in search of new knowledge instead of dumba$$ “autograph hunter” material that might have a tempting market value but is of no meaningful historical value.  First of all, you will find and perhaps aid in preserving old documents which you will use to produce something actually new and perhaps even interesting. 

Secondly, you won’t go to jail for it.  That seems to me to be a huge advantage over the other path, but you can’t fence this cowgirl in.

Man, that horse can DANCE, goddammit!

20 thoughts on “Another reason not to become a "presidential historian"

  1. I saw that story and was appalled but not that incredibly surprised. Rather like the story just a few months back where the “presidential historian” had altered a document date to give himself credit for a big find on Lincoln, some people really seem to see these projects as all about them.


  2. Ever since my first encounter with archives I’ve realized how easy it would be in many places to sneak something out.

    Of course, I don’t, because it’s simply wrong.

    But there’s another reason why historians shouldn’t do that–a self-interested reason. If you take a document out of the archive, there’s no way you can cite it! If someone decided to check your references, they would find that the document isn’t there. They’d have to conclude either that you stole it or that you made it up. Either way you’re screwed, professionally.


  3. Sisyphus: totally! I’ll look for an Uncle Sam version.

    Brian makes the excellent and obvious point that at the very least, one would be accused of research misconduct, and at the most one would be accused, tried, and convicted of a felony (depending on the $$ value of the ms., that is.)

    Notorious: where would you go to fence something like the Codex Calixtinus? I can understand how these d-bags in Baltimore thought that they could fence a couple of dance cards signed by Lincoln, or whatever, because there are enough purloined, legit, and fake Lincoln signatures circulating in the U.S. these days. But an illuminated manuscript? Only in a Dan Brown novel would this work as a moneymaking scheme.


  4. Crook’R’Us. Also in danger brain surgery, OB GyN, … My former bro in law is a gangster masquerading as an excellent dentist. No root canal for you.


  5. Sucks, but it totally happens. I heard a story the other day from a reliable source about a manuscript repository employee, fairly highly-placed, who was stealing stuff from his own collections and selling them that very day on his work computer! Leaving a more than bread-crumb evidence trail which the authorities quickly picked up. He’s doing time now. I do wonder about the bail denial. A repeat of the same type of crime could be easily prevented by spreading the word on archival networks to keep them out pending trial. It’s doubtful whether any behavioral correlation between this and other categories of criminality have been documented in the literature. Anyone might be presumed a flight risk in any case, but if they all were incarcerated they’d have to sell off the Maryland Hall of Records just to pay the costs. They could be ordered to remain within the limits of Baltimore County and to check in weekly pending trial, at their own expense, of course.

    The asymmetrical team aspect of the case intrigues; I see a possible telemovie script shaping up here.


  6. For the really big famous docs, I imagine it was stolen to order (now, I wonder if I could do research that way… hmm, they’re not paying me enough).

    Seriously, I know of quite a few stories about stolen archival material, including one where it was an archivist stealing material. I also have experienced visiting an archive to look at documents on a particular theme and having them all be missing. And, I don’t mean there was a file missing (which happens all the time), but rather individuals letters that all related to the same theme were missing from a wide variety of files. I told the archvist about the first few, but she was getting more and more upset, so I just stopped telling her. Who knows where they went…


  7. I agree with Feminist Avatar, the super big thefts are often to order, so fencing isn’t an issue.

    Re: denial of bail: I would guess that they believe that’s the best way to make sure they find as many of the documents this guy stole as possible. If he’d been out on bail, he could burn them, ship them, fence them or hand them off to someone else to do the legwork. I am assuming, of course, that there were probably many more docs than what were found in the locker!


  8. I wonder if they used anyone from the “History Detectives” or “Antiques Roadshow” to assess the monetary value of the allegedly stolen documents.

    Our local untrained history buff-local historian isn’t allowed in any archives or library in the area. Seems a lot of archivists and librarians and others are waiting for him to die so that they may retrieve all the items he decided to take home for safekeeping. According to one librarian, he believes that the stuff is in better hands since he knows the “real” value.

    I’m always asked what I, as a material culture studies type, collect. I don’t. I really don’t have the money or the time, but I think it’s a problematic position for a historian. Having worked with collectors I understand the quest. And I’ve had to review many a book about a type of object (needlework, for example) in which the author-collector-expert has depended on current market values to frame the historical interpretation. Drives me nuts.

    I’m fascinated that bail was withheld. With no priors, a permanent home, and presumably a decent bank account (and the value of his own collection), has the judge watched too many episodes of “Hoarders”? What’s up with that?


  9. It’s totally crazy to call yourself a historian and steal from archives. The idea of documents out of public hands is so anathema to what we do. But none of my documents are worth anything close to $100,000. I guess pulp fiction just doesn’t rate high on the presidential scale.

    But maybe he read one of my favorite novels — A.S. Byatt’s Possession — which has everything to do with theft from the archives. Even though the villain is a collector rather than a true scholar, and the hero does ‘fess up at the end.


  10. The Tea Partiers are wrong, but they’re a helluva lot smarter than lefties in organizing and putting pressure on the system outside of the Republican party. It’s because of the Tea Party in large part we’re watching this fake showdown over the deficit and national debt. They got their nominal concern to the top of the U.S. agenda in fewer than 2 years!

    If only leftists and progressives had their guts. . .


  11. My spouse is an archivist and has seen some outrageous cases of theft – from collectors, historians and the archivists! Some archives are just poorly managed and so it is really quite easy to steal from them. Additionally, the staff in independent archives are often poorly paid and not actually trained as archivists allowing for a mentality that sees little wrong with “stealing some old stuff” that nets them a supplemental income.

    My husband used to be a collector (and still does in one particular area unrelated to his archives) but he views it as unprofessional to personally collect in the focus areas of his archives, even though he used to do so. But I don’t think there is any official code of conduct in those terms for archivists, just his own moral code.


  12. There’s a follow-up story on this case in the NYT today. Another major Middle Atlantic repository was onto the guy already because he “filled out call slips incorrectly and worked through boxes of material in alphabetical order rather than by topic.” He “brought the staff Pepperidge Farm cookies.” He “exasperated [them] with the sheer volume of material” he requested, probably amounting to “hundreds of boxes.” “What are you looking for,” they said to him, “Just tell us. You’re driving us nuts here…” I guess there’s a “Best Research Practices Council” now with guidelines on how you work an archive. Watch out you quirky scholars, you’re burning out staff!!! And all this mayhem on just three half-days a week of opening hours!


  13. Ha! What a hack. That would set off my BS detector, for sure. And what a cheapskate too, trying to buy off archivists with a crummy box of cookies. The guy should be jailed just for harassing archivists, IMHO.

    I’m the kind of scholar who works with one volume of records for weeks at a time, so now I understand why archivists are happy to let me come and read even outside of official days/hours. . . (and I gift more than a crummy box of cookies from a convenience store too, BTW.)


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