The Who2 Blog

The Great Historical Document Heist

A million dollars in loot, a novice thief and his older gentleman friend… and the White House? 

Sounds like the makings of a Hollywood thriller. Except the loot is just a bunch of old paper.

This week in Baltimore a Canadian citizen named Jason Savedoff entered a guilty plea on charges that he and his sort-of mentor, Barry Landau, stole valuable historical documents from the Maryland Historical Society. The experts say about $1 million worth, including signed papers by Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and John Adams.

Barry Landau is a collector of presidential memorabilia, with a specialty in what people eat at the White House. The author of The President’s Table: Two Hundred Years of Dining and Diplomacy, Landau promotes himself as “America’s Presidential Historian.” He’s been on TV as an expert on the social side of the presidency, and he’s known to have one of the largest private collections of White House memorabilia.

Barry Landau’s website has its own impressive collection of self-promoting videos and testimonials, as well as photos like this one, with Barry photo-bombing Ron and Nancy Reagan while actress Shelley Winters looks trapped:

Nancy and Ronald Reagan, with Shelley Winters and Barry Landau

Officials at the Maryland Historical Society say they saw Barry Landau stuff some documents into his overcoat, and in July Landau was arrested with Jason Savedoff, who was described as his research assistant.

Even before seeing Landau shoplift some treasures, the folks at the MHS were suspicious of the pair. Maybe it was the way Landau offered up too many cookies and cupcakes when he visited. Maybe it was the way Savedoff filled out forms incorrectly and asked “naive questions.” Maybe it was the long overcoats with secret pockets.

When police arrested Landau and Savedoff, they found 60 valuable documents (they found more later), and they claim Savedoff had tried to shred some papers and flush them down the toilet. Just like Scarface!

Barry Landau was released without bail and told to go stay put in his Manhattan apartment. Savedoff stood up in court and said he and Barry were in on the scheme together.

Barry’s attorney says Barry is innocent, and that his client is “a very sensitive person” who “didn’t really know” Jason Savedoff. However, the same attorney also said Savedoff has been “staying with Landau,” and reports from various other historical societies and museums in New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania make it clear that Savedoff has been posing as Landau’s assistant since at least December of 2010.

As for the relationship between the 63 year-old Landau and the 24 year-old Savedoff, Landau’s attorney offers no insight, other than to say it’s a “personal matter.”

Since the July arrest, much of the focus has been on Barry Landau and his giant collection of presidential memorabilia. The story has archival organizations around the country taking stock of their own (lame) security measures, and checking if they’ve been visited by Mr. Landau and Mr. Savedoff.

It’s a juicy story that could easily be on the big screen, with maybe Robert De Niro as Landau and Ryan Phillippe as Savedoff. I can even see Zach Galifianakis in a cameo role as Shelley Winters. Of course, if Hollywood really did make it into a movie, they’d have to change the Maryland Historical Society to some impenetrable fortress, and they’d have to make the big overcoats into bullet-proof vests, and they’d have to change “historical documents” to something sexier, like a rare vaccine or a billion dollars worth of rare earth metals.

And they’d have to make Jason Savedoff’s character a woman and Barry Landau’s character an old pro who just needs to do one last job. Naturally, they would keep the 39 year age difference.

For more juicy details of the caper, try these news stories:

From July, there’s this story from The New York Times.

Also from July, this piece from Atlantic Wire has some additional details.

Read the official announcement on the indictment of Barry Landau and Jason Savedoff from the FBI.

Last August the Vancouver Sun ran this brief piece on Savedoff (their native son).

For this week’s news on Savedoff’s plea, read the story in The Washington Post or in The Baltimore Sun.

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