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National Archives' treasures targeted by thieves

The following is a script from "Stealing History" which aired on Oct. 28, 2012 and rebroadcast on June 2, 2013. Bob Simon is the correspondent. Katherine Davis, producer.

American history is housed in the National Archives. Forty-four of them, spread all over the country. They contain documents, photos, maps, artifacts that go back to our founding fathers. Every school kid knows about some of them: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Bill of Rights; but there are millions of others, from the patent for Michael Jackson's moonwalking shoes, to Benedict Arnold's loyalty oath.

Many are priceless treasures which means they attract not only scholars but thieves; more and more of them all the time. Getting to the crooks before they get to the archives has become a new priority in law enforcement.

As we reported last fall, no one knows more about this than Barry Landau -- a self-described presidential historian and one of the leading collectors of presidential memorabilia. That's because Barry Landau carried out the largest theft of these treasures in American history . Prosecutors say he is one of the most accomplished conmen they've ever encountered.

For decades, he was a regular guest at the White House. Here he is with President Ford and Queen Elizabeth. He's the guy with the beard.

He showed up with President Reagan and Nancy at the Inaugural Gala in 1985 and met a whole bunch of presidents: Richard Nixon, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton. He wrote an impressive picture-laden book, "The President's Table." And was invited to the finest anchor desks in town...

[Matt Lauer: Barry H. Landau is presidential historian...]

[Keith Olbermann clip: The story of the ultimate inauguration collector...]

But when we met up with him last June, he no longer wanted to tell his story. He'd been convicted of the single largest theft of historic artifacts in the United States. He stole thousands of items including hundreds of documents signed by some of the most famous names in history: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Francis Scott Key, Marie Antoinette, Voltaire. He'd pilfered them from museums and libraries all over the country.

U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein was in charge of the prosecution.

Bob Simon: He was a conman?

Rod Rosenstein: Barry Landau was a con artist. And he used his reputation as a presidential historian in order to gain the confidence of museums and other people who had custody of important documents and then he stole them.

It was a reputation, it turns out, that was the product of his rich imagination. Landau claimed he'd worked for every president since Lyndon Johnson, had served as chief of protocol at the White House.

Rod Rosenstein: But in fact, there is no evidence that Barry Landau was ever employed by any White House or had any of the relationships he claimed to have or indeed had any legitimate job at all.

The Landau case and a few others let law enforcement know they had a problem they hadn't really been aware of until very recently.

Paul Brachfeld: Every institution now that has collections is threatened. We all know that there is a major threat and it's getting larger.

Former Secret Service employee Paul Brachfeld is the inspector general of the National Archives. He runs the tiny and little-known archival recovery team: armed federal agents and historians who, along with the FBI, go after stolen national treasures.

Bob Simon: Now Landau, was he a good thief? Was he a good conman?

Paul Brachfeld: From everybody I talked to, he was a master thief. Because he did it over a duration of time. He shopped. He got what he shopped for.

A trusted researcher and regular at libraries around the country, Landau's strategy, along with his accomplice, they conquered with kindness; as they did here at the Maryland Historical Society where Pat Anderson is the director.

Bob Simon: Some thieves work with knives, others with guns. These guys worked with cupcakes?

Pat Anderson: Yes, they did. Yes, they did. They brought us cupcakes and the second time they visited, they brought cookies. Evidently they took treats to every repository they visited.

Bob Simon: And it worked.

Pat Anderson: It did work.

But on July 9th, 2011, the esteemed Mr. Landau got careless and Pat Anderson's archivists got suspicious, caught them stealing, and called the police.

Bob Simon: How many things did they have when they were caught?

Pat Anderson: They had 60 pieces of our library material.

Bob Simon: OK, so now this is some of the stuff they stole? Tell me what we're looking at.

Pat Anderson: These are inauguration souvenirs.

Bob Simon: From which inauguration?

Pat Anderson: This is Grover Cleveland's and, these are fun, tickets to Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate. And they grabbed a fistful of those.

Bob Simon: I bet.

There wasn't much security at the Maryland Historical Society. But still, how do you walk out in front of the librarians' desk with 60 documents? The secret was sartorial. Deep pockets.

Bob Simon: And those are his costumes?

Rod Rosenstein: These are the jackets that Mr. Landau used and he had altered in order to steal items from the historical societies. Now, what's interesting about these coats is that he arranged for a tailor to install interior pockets, hidden pockets inside the jackets that are large enough to fit these documents.

Landau had a whole collection of them, including a trench coat.

Bob Simon: How did you react when you saw his jackets?

Paul Brachfeld: Fascinated. Again, in my world, every criminal is different. Every thief is different. And you just always - you kind of respect them. You kind of learn from them.

After the bust in Maryland, Inspector General Brachfeld and the FBI decided it would be a good idea to get a search warrant for Landau's apartment in New York.

Bob Simon: It was your agents who broke into Landau's apartment. How did they react when they found what they found?

Paul Brachfeld: Well, my focus was getting them a truck because when we got to Mr. Landau's apartment, we came to the quick realization that we needed a truck. This was, by far, in terms of quantity, the largest amount of documents and artifacts that we've ever recovered from one site.

Ten thousand items; including 300 of extraordinary historical value. What were they worth on the market?

Paul Brachfeld: I think the value was astronomical. And for me, it's so difficult to put an empirical number on them. It's basically how much the market would bear. For all I know, to some collector, one document might have been worth millions.

Bob Simon: All of these were found in Landau's apartment?

Rod Rosenstein: All of these documents were seized from Mr. Landau's apartment in NYC.

There were remarkable documents: letters signed by Mark Twain, Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, a document penned by Lorenzo de Medici 533 years ago, an epitaph written by Benjamin Franklin for himself.

Bob Simon: And he wrote, "Lies here food for the worms yet the work shall not be lost." Pretty good stuff.

A letter written by John Hancock with a real John Hancock signature, and for 20th century buffs, there was the original reading copy of FDR's 1937 inaugural address.

This one....

[Video of FDR delivering inaugural address: One third of a nation, ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished...]

Rod Rosenstein: It was a rainy day. In fact, the reading copy of the speech, the document the president read from that day was waterlogged. And you can see that on the document that we seized from Mr. Landau.

And landau didn't just steal from historical libraries. He had taken his campaign of kindness all the way to the White House, befriending President Clinton's former secretary, Betty Currie, who made the mistake of inviting Landau to her house.

Bob Simon: Landau was pretty good at making friends with people who could help him, wasn't he? He spent nights at her place.

Paul Brachfeld: Bad, bad offer to invite him into your house.

Bob Simon: He arrived at her house with one suitcase and left with two?

Paul Brachfeld: The assistant U.S. attorney actually upped that - I think he said it was three in court. So Betty Currie should've gotten up early that morning and basically escorted him out the door. I guess there's a lesson to be learned. If you have a houseguest, say goodbye to them in your driveway.

He robbed her of more than 250 items including copies of presidential speeches from her personal collection. Naturally, we wanted to ask Barry Landau about all of this so last summer we tried to talk to him in New York City.

Bob Simon: Bob Simon, 60 Minutes....Talk to us a minute.

Barry Landau: No, no, no, no, no.

Bob Simon: Just answer some questions. It''re being accused of a lot of things and we want to hear your side of it. They say, the prosecution says you're a conman, a thief, what do you say to that? Don't you have anything to say at this point in your own defense?

Landau may have been the maestro of his craft. But there have been others thieves. Last summer, prosecutors put Leslie Waffen behind bars. He was in charge of the Archives' Audio and Film Records department. He stole thousands of original recordings and sold them on eBay. Gems like this eyewitness account of the Hindenburg disaster:

[Witness: It's a terrific crash, ladies and gentlemen...the smoke and the flames...oh the humanity!"]

Another employee stole most of the presidential pardons from the Philadelphia archives, as well as hundreds of photos taken by astronauts in space and on the moon.

Bob Simon: Do you look on eBay for suspicious documents?

Paul Brachfeld: That would be one of the sites we would look at. Many times, when a thief is trying to move a document on the Internet, the buyer may be a federal agent. And that's real sweet.

Bob Simon: You're talking sting operations?

Paul Brachfeld: Yes.

Bob Simon: Have you been successful with sting operations?

Paul Brachfeld: Yes. We ask our sentinels, historians and collectors and dealers, to help us. We go where a lot of federal employees usually aren't welcome. We'll go to gun shows, we'll go to dealer shows.

Like the Civil War collector's fair in Gettysburg, Penn. Here hundreds of dealers and thousands of visitors show up every year to meander. And to buy. Many documents -- including a few signed by Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee are for sale. Have any of them been stolen from archives or museums? That's what Archival Recovery Team agents Kelly Maltagliati and Mitch Yockelson are looking for.

Bob Simon: What would you be happiest to find?

Mitch Yockelson: We're missing the Wright Brothers patent. That would thrill me to no end to recover the patent for the Flying Machine of 1903.

Bob Simon: When did it disappear?

Mitch Yockelson: We don't even know. We discovered it was missing around 2003 when a staff member had wanted to pull it for an exhibit commemorating the centennial.

Also missing, the bombing maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. So where do these things end up?

Rod Rosenstein: In foreign countries, for example in Eastern Europe, there is a market - a black market - for American historical documents

Bob Simon: How do these black markets function and where are they?

Rod Rosenstein: I think it's like any illegal market anywhere in the world. If you know of somebody who has a lot of money and wants to collect significant, unique items and you make that connection, then you may well be able to make the sale.

But Barry Landau has been put out of business. Last summer, he was sentenced to seven years in prison. And that's not all.

Rod Rosenstein: Even after Mr. Landau is released from prison , he will be prohibited from visiting museums, libraries, or any other places where documents are deposited.

One after effect of the Landau case is that security is being tightened in many of these places. Pat Anderson is imposing new rules in the Maryland Historical Society.

Pat Anderson: Our patrons are no longer allowed to wear jackets in the reading room. And it's unfortunate, some of our older patrons, they get chilly and we have to say "I'm sorry" and so they can wear a shawl but they can't wear jackets, so...(laughs)

Bob Simon: You're going to have to hand out blankets.

Pat Anderson: Well exactly and hope they don't have pockets in them.

Bob Simon: Yeah (laugh)

And Ms. Anderson will not just be hoping. She'll be there on the front lines guarding our past.

Bob Simon: You are the custodians of more than these documents - you're sort of the custodians of American history.

Pat Anderson: Yes we are. We're the stewards. We make sure it gets from one generation to the next. You know, this is what survives of the American past. We never have all of it which is what makes what survives so much more important. These things don't belong to us. They belong to the American people.

After we finished reporting this story, longtime Inspector General Paul Brachfeld was put on administrative leave with pay, in part for allegedly leaking sensitive information to 60 Minutes. He denies the allegations against him.

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