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Historian pleads guilty to document theft scheme

A presidential historian has pleaded guilty to stealing valuable  documents signed by U.S. presidents, Karl Marx and the French queen Marie Antoinette.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A presidential historian, collector and author pleaded guilty Tuesday to stealing historic documents, including papers signed by President Abraham Lincoln worth $300,000 and documents signed by Napoleon and beheaded French queen Marie Antoinette.

Barry Landau of New York City admitted to taking documents from the Maryland Historical Society and conspiring with his assistant to steal and sell more documents from that institution and others in the Northeast.

Jason Savedoff, 24, the assistant, pleaded guilty in October to the same charges: theft of major artwork and conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork.

Prosecutors say the 63-year-old Landau schemed for years, if not decades, to steal valuable documents.

Landau and Savedoff were arrested in July in Baltimore after a Maryland Historical Society employee saw Savedoff stash a document into a portfolio and walk out of the library, authorities said in court documents. The employee said he had been watching the pair for hours because they were acting suspiciously.

The pair had about 80 documents when they were arrested, according to Savedoff's plea. About 60 belonged to the Maryland society, including the papers signed by President Lincoln and presidential inaugural ball invitations and programs worth $500,000.

In the weeks after Landau's arrest, the FBI seized 10,000 documents from his Manhattan apartment. By September, National Archives and Records Administration investigators had traced more than 2,000 documents to libraries and other repositories, according to court documents. Those documents were signed by a range of historic figures, including American presidents Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt and John Adams and German philosopher Karl Marx, according to Savedoff's plea.

The pair stole seven copies of Roosevelt's speeches from the Roosevelt Presidential Library in New York, four of which Landau later sold for $35,000, according to the indictment.

The pair compiled lists of historic figures, often noting the market value of documents signed by them, and Savedoff identified collections with valuable documents that they could target, according to Savedoff's plea.

The case prompted some archives and historical institutions to strengthen their security and to review their logs for visits by the pair to check if documents are missing.

Landau portrayed himself as an expert on presidential history and etiquette and was quoted in the press. He showed off his museum-like apartment filled with mementos dating back to Washington's presidency when reporters came to interview him.

A 2007 Associated Press article, written when Landau's book, "The President's Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy" was published, includes the story of how he became fascinated with the American presidency. Landau said that when he was 10, he parlayed a meeting with President Dwight Eisenhower, who was visiting New York, into an invitation to the White House.