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Kimberly Powell

Dealing in Historical Documents

By October 25, 2008

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What family historian wouldn't love to possess their great, great grandfather's original will or a centuries old family Bible? Such items are treasures for anyone with a love of history. But they are also a rich source of income for collectors, leading to our nation's history disappearing piece by piece into private hands.

In the summer of 2006, a former National Archives intern named Jim McTague stole 164 historical documents from NARA's Philadelphia facility, selling almost half of them on eBay. Six years earlier, former National Archives employee, Shawn P. Aubitz, pilfered several hundred documents and photos over a period of months, including pardons signed by Presidents James Madison and Abraham Lincoln. During a six-year period from 1996-2002, a Virginia amateur historian named Howard Harner repeatedly tucked Civil War papers into his clothes and smuggled them out of a National Archives research room. In 2006, Western Washington University discovered that more than 600 pages of maps, lithographs, charts and illustrations had been torn from at least 102 vintage volumes. Edward Forbes Smiley III, a Massachusetts dealer, was sentenced to 42 months in prison for stealing 98 rare maps from university libraries in the United States and United Kingdom between 1998 and 2005. These and other thefts of historical documents are discussed in the excellent article To Catch a Thief which appeared in the April issue of Smithsonian Magazine. In response to such thefts, the National Archives has a program in place to help recover lost and stolen documents.

It's not just documents from the U.S. National Archives either. Over 4,000 historical documents were reported stolen from Russian national archives durig the early 90s; last year, the United States government returned a batch of eighty of them apparently found for sale at two U.S. auction houses. During the late 90s, the wills of baseball Hall of Famers George Wright, Tommy McCarthy and Hugh Duffy were found missing from a courthouse vault in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. The next year, the deed for Babe Ruth's home in Sudbury, Massachusetts, was discovered missing from the Middlesex County courthouse. Earlier this year, an employee of the New York State Department of Education was accused of stealing hundreds of historic documents from the New York State Library and selling some of them on eBay. In 2001, papers relating to slaves and wealthy family estates that had been ripped out of books missing from the Bryan County and Thomas County courthouses in Georgia were discovered for sale on the Internet.

But what of the many historical documents that appear to have legally left government hands? Who is the true owner? That's a big question in the recent seizure of an original Eastern State Penitentiary Prison Entry Record Book that lists 744 convicts incarcerated in the penal fortress between 1839 and 1850 from Edward Marshall, a rare book dealer who was auctioning the item on eBay. Pennsylvania state troopers apparently arrived at his place of business and seized the record book without a warrant after placing a false winning bid on the eBay auction. Edward Marshall, a well-known, reputable antiquities dealer, bought the book from Freeman's auction house on December 16, 1999. The book was one of three Eastern State artifacts on the action block that day. David Bloom, Freeman's vice president of rare books and manuscripts, says that the book came from a reputable source. "It's not unusual for these documents from institutions to be thrown out, recovered by trash pickers, then find their way back in the historical chain," Bloom told Karen Heller of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The Pennsylvania State Archives looks at it differently, however, taking the position that "once a state record, always a state record." Because the Archives owns the earlier and later record books and Marshall's record book is the only one missing, State Archivist David Haury says it belongs in their collection. I mention this case so that you won't assume that all historical documents that appear in auction houses and online auction sites have been stolen. Many historical records and documents have been thrown out or lost over time, legally finding their way into private hands.

As a history lover, it makes me so mad that these types of thefts are occuring. Sure, I would love to own the historical records which document the lives of my ancestors, but I'm not their only descendant. What gives me any more of a right than the rest of the descendants? Or the local, county or state government that generated the original record? Or the historical association, library or archives which has preserved that document for so many years? When a historical document disappears from an archive, we are all diminished.

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