Special agents hunt down America's national treasures
By Craig Smith
Published: Sunday, July 3, 2011,
A Maryland woman hoped that she made a lucrative find when she discovered Abraham Lincoln's signed 1865 pardon of court-martialed black Union soldier Adam Laws of Fayette County.
But a member of the National Archives' Archival Recovery Team spotted a newspaper story about an online auction of the document planned in February. The National Archives and Records Administration stopped the sale.
"We believe this belongs to the Archives," said Ross Weiland, assistant inspector general for investigations.
The National Archives is the nation's record-keeper — with 9 billion pages of text records, plus maps, pictures, photos, recordings and moving images — but open access and leaky security allowed items to slip out of its 44 centers and presidential libraries.
"We were defenseless. I couldn't believe how vulnerable we were," said Archives' Inspector General Paul Brachfeld.
The recovery team — including an investigative archivist and special agents assigned to the Inspector General's office — hunts down missing artifacts by searching news articles and Internet auction sites, pursuing tips and going to collectors shows, such as the one in Gettysburg last weekend. Team members are planning a visit to a military and antiques show in Monroeville on Sept. 30 and Oct. 1.
With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War sparking new interest in artifacts and documents from the 1800s, recovery team members are looking for missing documents from that era to resurface. It has recovered about 7,000 items over the past five years, said Mitchell Yockelson, investigative archivist.
Brachfeld said he doesn't believe the Adam Laws pardon was stolen from the archives, but he insists it is a national treasure that belongs there. The document appears to be the government's copy because of a seal on the bottom of the page.
"Considering the time frame, what the war was about and where we've come as a nation, that document becomes historically significant," Weiland said.
Laurie Zook of Frederick, Md., said she discovered the pardon in a book while cleaning out a house in Silver Spring, Md., that had been vacant for years. She hoped a benefactor would buy it and donate it to the National Archives, although she concedes "that would be a miracle."
The archives tries to work out an amicable agreement for the return of missing items, said Weiland, but if it can't, it can go to court. The archives works with the Department of Justice in pursuing those cases.
When Brachfeld came to the agency in 1999, he saw "major national security risks that were unacceptable." People treated the archives "as an open institution, a library."
Many documents disappeared in the hands of people who worked at the National Archives. Some liked to slice the signatures off documents to sell, Brachfeld said.
In 2002, Sandy Berger, who had been the national security adviser to President Bill Clinton, walked out of the archives with a stack of classified documents to prepare for his testimony before the 9/11 Commission. Berger pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and lost his Defense clearance for three years. He was fined $50,000.
The archives toughened security, including searching the personal belongings of all employees, and instituted a team that trains the archives staff to protect holdings and spot potential thefts.
When Yockelson and Special Agent David Berry visited the Civil War collectors show in Gettysburg last month, they were hoping to get a couple of leads and spread the word about the hunt for lost or stolen documents.
"We got no real leads, which is fine," Yockelson said. "But the dealers said, 'We like having you guys here,' which is important." In addition to the face-to-face meetings, the team also generates a lot of leads on its Facebook page.
Sometimes tips come from amateur history sleuths such as Civil War collector Dean Thomas, 62, of Gettysburg.
Thomas saw documents pertaining to the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia for sale on an Internet auction site, and he knew he had seen them in the National Archives while doing research there.
"I knew they were stolen," said Thomas, 62, a publisher and author.
The documents included a letter from the Austrian consul to the commander of the arsenal offering a new cartridge for Union rifles. Thomas notified Brachfeld's office and was soon talking with two special agents.
Among the team's recoveries are presidential pardons issued by Ulysses S. Grant and Andrew Jackson.
"They are very unique documents. Every pardon tells a story," Brachfeld said.
Laws enlisted in the Union Army on Dec. 9, 1863, at Frederick, Md., where he was working as a blacksmith. He mustered into the 19th Regiment U.S. Colored Troops a month later at Camp Stanton in Benedict, Md.
He was arrested for insubordination on April 23, 1864, and found guilty of "conduct prejudicial to good order and military discipline." He was sentenced to six months in prison.
Laws wrote Lincoln on Oct. 7, 1864, requesting a pardon, which was granted on Jan. 28, 1865.
Zook owns Mission: Transition, which helps clients prepare for estate liquidations and relocations.
"It's been a tough couple of years," she said. "This will make a difference for me," she said about selling the pardon.
Zook said she believes it could fetch at least $20,000, though one Lincoln expert, Dan Weinberg of Chicago, says that's high in this economy.
"The interest is there, but the pocketbook is not," he said.
Missing documents and artifacts are a problem at institutions across the country that preserve our history, Brachfeld said.
"A lot of institutions don't want to admit there's thefts," he said. "It doesn't sit well with their boards, their stakeholders."
At the Senator John Heinz History Center in the Strip District, inventory control is a challenging thing, said CEO Andy Masich. Material is inventoried immediately after researchers use it. Lockers are provided to store their personal belongings so it can't be used to hide material.
Increased vigilance is worth it.
"We owe it to the American people. We owe it to the American story," Berry said. "Once it's gone, it's gone."
Among the missing
Items missing from the National Archives include:
• Documents from John Adams, George Armstrong Custer, Jefferson Davis, Ulysses S. Grant, Abraham Lincoln and George E. Pickett
• Presidential pardons from Millard Fillmore, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, Andrew Jackson, Andrew Johnson, James Madison, Franklin Pierce, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, John Tyler and Martin Van Buren
• Statues, class rings, daggers and presidential swords given to George H.W. Bush, Lyndon B. Johnson and Harry S. Truman
• Two Andrew Jackson signatures clipped from documents dated May 8, 1829, and May 13, 1829
• The Eli Whitney Cotton Gin patent, target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Wright Brothers flying machine patent application of 1903
• The Jan. 17, 1870, pardon of Charles Jones and the Jan. 25, 1876, pardon of George Weidel by President Ulysses S. Grant
• The May 25, 1831, pardon of Thomas Ward by President Andrew Jackson
• The Remington bronco statute given to President George H.W. Bush
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