Millions of valuable historical documents at local historical societies, state libraries and the National Archives are vulnerable to being stolen by insiders and outsiders

Treasure-troves at risk; Thefts cost billions as experts work to step up security of artifacts 

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer 

 The reasons are many: the sheer volume; incomplete inventories; the cost of security; the value of the artifacts amid a growing demand from collectors; and the fact the documents are routinely retrieved by staffers for use by researchers in public reading rooms.        “New York state has some of the most secure archives and the most professional archivists in the country, but they’re not immune to theft,” said Richard Strassberg, a retired Cornell University archivist who leads security workshops for the Society of American Archivists. The FBI estimates $6 billion is lost annually in crimes against cultural institutions worldwide. Strassberg advocates spending more on security and tougher sentences for the thieves. 

“We’ll always be exposed to risk, especially from internal sources, because the most opportunities exist there and the rewards can be significant,” said Paul Brachfeld, inspector general for the National Archives and Records Administration, which oversees billions of artifacts in Washington, D.C., and at presidential libraries. Brachfeld has won convictions in three major thefts from the National Archives over the past eight years, two from insiders and the other from a researcher. “It’s very difficult to stop,” Brachfeld said. “Are you going to strip-search a 54-year-old state archivist?” He was referring to Daniel Lorello, who is charged with stealing hundreds of documents from secure stacks, which include many of the State Archives’ 200 million items and State Library’s 20 million. 

The most valuable documents — including a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation written in Abraham Lincoln’s hand — are kept in a vault on the seventh floor with added security. Lorello was not charged with stealing from the vault. Mandatory bag inspections of State Library and Archives employees as they leave work have been discussed over the years, but have not been put in place because of concerns raised by unions and the added cost. 

“We’re not unaware of the need,” said Kathleen Roe, director of archives and records management operations at the State Operations. Bag checks and other security measures — including surveillance cameras — will be considered by a panel of experts who will complete a fast-track security assessment ordered in the wake of Lorello’s alleged thefts, Roe said. “We’re always trying to balance access and security,” said Loretta Ebert, director of the State Library’s research library. 

“This has made us all stop and think and review our security procedures,” said John Dojka, archivist and head of special collections at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy. At Union College in Schenectady, Ellen Fladger, head of special collections, installed security cameras a year ago. She did so after students researching the history of their fraternity made off with five documents from the public reading room.

The documents were recovered and the students were disciplined. “We don’t want to become so paranoid that we lock up everything and deny access,” said Ruth Copans, Skidmore College’s librarian and head of its special collections in Saratoga Springs. Historical documents such as letters and photographs are easily transported and repeatedly bought and sold, making provenance murky.

Ephemera has become more attractive to thieves due to rising sale prices on the Internet and interest spurred by the popular PBS television program “Antiques Roadshow.” Dealers are also aware of other potential Lorellos. “Theft is something we all deal with, but there aren’t many cost-effective methods of dealing with it,” said Dennis Holzman, an Albany ephemera dealer for 35 years who has bought items that turned out to be stolen.

He returned them to their rightful owners. Historical heists 2008: Newport News, Va. Former archivist at Mariners’ Museum and his wife face up to 20 years in prison and $250,000 in fines after being charged last week with stealing maritime artifacts and selling as many as 1,400 on eBay. 2007: Philadelphia. 40-year-old financially strapped graduate student doing an unpaid summer internship at National Archives stole dozens of Civil War documents from the Philadelphia site.

Sentenced to 15 months in federal prison. 2004. Lexington, Ky. Four college-age men using a stun device blindfolded and tied up a librarian at Transylvania University, then made off with four-volume set of 1838 Audubon engravings. The thieves are serving seven-year prison terms. 2002. Philadelphia. Former National Archives employee was charged with stealing 71 presidential pardons signed by 10 presidents from National Archives site and selling the items on eBay. Sentenced to 21 months in federal prison and ordered to pay $74,000. 

Paul Grondahl