Precious historical artifacts like the Wright Brothers airplane patent, the bombing maps for the nuclear attack on Japan, the original eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg disaster and photos taken by the astronauts on the moon are just some of the items stolen from our National Archives. So much of our past has been pocketed by thieves that the National Archives has formed a recovery team to get them back. Bob Simon reports on this alarming trend -- and the conman now serving seven years in prison for the largest theft of historic artifacts in U.S. history -- in a 60 Minutes report to be broadcast Sunday, Oct. 28 at 7 p.m. ET/PT.
Some of the items are back where they belong, like the Hindenburg recording and the space photos. Recovering the stolen artifacts is the job of people like Mitch Yockelson of the National Archives Archival Recovery Team. "We're missing the Wright Brothers patent. That would thrill me to no end to recover the patent for the Flying Machine of 1903," Yockelson tells Simon. Nobody knows when it was stolen. "We discovered it was missing in 2003."
The armed recovery team, which chases stolen artifacts along with the FBI, was formed by the National Archives' Inspector General Paul Brachfeld. With a rise in thefts in libraries, historical societies and in the 44 separate archives throughout the country, it was time. "Every institution now that has collections is threatened. We all know that there is a major threat and it's getting larger," says Brachfeld.
That threat was made obvious when authorities last year arrested Barry Landau, a conman who created a fake career as a "presidential historian" so he could get access to the archives from which he stole thousands of items. He especially liked signed documents and stole letters and other materials with the signatures of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Voltaire, Mark Twain, and Charles Dickens. He had large pockets sewn into his clothing to conceal his loot. He managed to get invited to White House functions several times over the decades, where routine photos with important people helped to legitimize him to un-knowing archivists. "From everybody I talked to, he was a master thief," says Brachfeld. "Because he did it over a duration of time. He shopped. He got what he shopped for."
When Brachfeld's team and the FBI searched Landau's New York apartment after his arrest, they recovered 10,000 items, at least 300 of great historical value, including a 533-year-old document penned by a member of Italy's storied Medici family and the original reading copy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's 1937 inaugural address, with his hand-written notes in the margins. There is no telling what they are exactly worth, because some of these items would never become available on the open market and are irreplaceable. Says Brachfeld, "I think the value was astronomical...it's basically how much the market would bear...to some collector, one document could be worth millions."