FRANKLIN, TENN. – Among the Civil War buffs wandering through the tables of muskets and faded daguerreotypes of Union soldiers for sale here are four federal agents.
One raids houses and carries a gun. But right now he’s handing out innocuous-looking brochures to the relic hunters walking by, as the sweet smell of glazed nuts wafts from a concession stand. “Does that document belong in the National Archives?” the brochure asks.
The agents have flown to a fairground outside Nashville to the country’s biggest Civil War show to hunt for stolen treasure – robbed right from the nation’s attic.
Whether they know it or not, the dealers may be trafficking in stolen government property. The heist may have taken place in 1865. Or last week. Or a document may not have been looted at all, but made its way into private hands instead of the Archives.
With the Civil War 150th anniversary drawing new interest, the trail could be warm.
“We’re friendly,” says Paul Brachfeld, inspector general of the Archives, who has gotten out of the office this December weekend to see his team in action. For the dealers, “it’s an authenticity thing,” he says. “If you traffic in stolen documents, it taints everything.”
The tactic illustrates the new, more aggressive approach the Archives is taking in an effort to recover treasures that have disappeared from its holdings. Porous security and open access have allowed countless items to slip out of the Archives’ 44 centers and presidential libraries, from the Washington headquarters to the Reagan Library in California.
The missing items include telegrams written by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War; the Wright brothers’ patent for a flying machine; Eli Whitney’s patent for the cotton gin; Lyndon Johnson’s class ring from the Coast Guard; an official portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt; and target maps for the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
‘We were defenseless’
Government auditors have long warned that lax security at the Archives has allowed trusted researchers and employees to sneak past security cameras with priceless treasures, or find ways to destroy or alter government records. The problem was underscored last month when the agency accused a longtime researcher of changing the date on a pardon signed by Lincoln to make it appear more valuable. There were no security cameras at the time.
“For a long time we were defenseless, and senior managers just accepted that,” said Brachfeld, who has assigned eight of his 24 agents to the Archival Recovery Team, a unit devoted to retrieving stolen loot.
“We have people alone with images and artifacts all the time,” Brachfeld said. “The thieves all say how easy it was.” Until not long ago, some researchers were given open access to stack areas with no supervision, officials and researchers said.
Around the time they disclosed that the Lincoln pardon was altered with a fountain pen in full view in the main research room in Washington, Archives officials instituted new security procedures they said would include random body searches as visitors leave the downtown headquarters and the massive records center in College Park.