By Peter Hermann, Steve Kilar and Tricia Bishop The Baltimore Sun
BALTIMORE — Barry H. Landau, the once esteemed collector of presidential memorabilia, admitted in court Tuesday to stealing thousands of documents treasured for their national and cultural significance from historical societies and libraries stretching from Baltimore up the East Coast.
The 63-year-old’s guilty plea in federal court to two criminal counts involving theft of artwork revealed a choreographed scheme in which prosecutors said he compiled lists of items to steal and matched the names of historic icons — from poets to presidents — to their “potential monetary value.”
Landau — who boasted one of the largest collections of Oval Office artifacts, and whose social circle included Hollywood elite and American presidents — admitted to being motivated by greed.
Authorities said Landau used various means to distract librarians and staffers in four states, sometimes with cupcakes, but also by using aliases, and he and his assistant concealed documents in secret pockets sewn into jackets, sandpapered off identifying markers and stole card catalogs to make tracing the purloined papers more difficult.
The FBI found 10,000 papers and “objects of cultural heritage” during searches of Landau’s Manhattan apartment. Court documents say investigators traced 4,000 of the items “as being stolen from libraries and repositories throughout the United States.”
Federal prosecutors have described the scope of the thefts as “truly breathtaking,” with stolen documents that include a 15th century manuscript from Lorenzo de Medici to three inaugural addresses delivered by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937, 1941 and 1945, with the former president’s hand-written notes and corrections.
Landau made no statement in federal court in Baltimore on Tuesday. He pleaded guilty to theft of major artwork and conspiracy to commit theft of major artwork, and faces up to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors and the defendant did not agree on a sentence, which will include paying restitution. His 24-year-old assistant, Jason James Savedoff, pleaded guilty to theft conspiracy in October. A date for his sentencing has not yet been set.
The court documents filed Tuesday list stolen papers signed by luminaries from a broad swath of history — Susan B. Anthony, John Hancock, John Adams, Karl Marx, Robert E. Lee, Sir Isaac Newton, Marie Antoinette, Napoleon and Charles Dickens writing to Edgar Allen Poe.
Items seized from the apartment have been turned over to the National Archives, where employees have been cataloging them and trying to track down owners.