Baltimore City police have arrested Barry Landau, the celebrity-chasing presidential historian, for the alleged theft of historical documents from the Maryland Historical Society. According to the NYT, the tip came from a MHS employee, who saw a colleague Jason Savedoff, who was traveling with Landau put a document into a briefcase and walk out the door, and immediately called the police. Shortly afterwards, 60 historical documents (which, it is implied, were not his property) were found in the possession of Landau’s colleague in Baltimore.
The director of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, in extended remarks to the Times, recalled that Landau and Savedoff — who visited 17 times in the past year — aroused suspicions by their behavior, and other historical societies are now checking their records and their collections. Savedoff in particular, who was introduced as Landau’s nephew, made a suspicious impression; among other things, he didn’t seem to be intellectually inclined or particularly well trained for the work.
It’s always surprising when someone in an intellectual or cultural field turns out to be a pilferer (and I note that there’s been no trial here and it’s conceivable that this is a colossal misunderstanding). Remember the Smiley map thefts? That story verged on the unbelievable, but it turned out to be true. (If you’re going to read one Smiley story, make it this one.)
But in the clubby world of historical document collections (which has its academic side and its for-profit dealing side), it’s easier to get away with theft than you might think. A culture applies of mutual respect — people are presumed honest and legitimate. Subjecting participants in that culture to excessive security restrictions would be unseemly, so it isn’t done. The sorts of people who keep public collections of historical documents — mostly stuffy and boring things, of interest only to narrow experts — are generally happy for any attention. And temptation is everywhere. Assuming the Landau charges are true, I suspect what may have happened is that he yielded once to temptation, couldn’t believe how easy it was, and fell into the habit.