National Archives' treasures targeted by thieves

Crooks are stealing pieces of American history -- like conman Barry Landau who committed the largest archival theft in the U.S.

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The following is a script from "Stealing History" which aired on Oct. 28, 2012. 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.

No one knows more about this than Barry Landau - a self-described presidential historian and one of the foremost 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 in 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 and 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.