6 People Who Tried to Steal Famous Documents

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Flickr: PhotoshopRoadmap

Diamond heists and stolen paintings might get more press, but historical documents tempt a certain kind of thief just as much. 

Some document thieves are in it for the money. They know they can get a nice sum for a Civil War map or a president's teenage letters to his mom. Many thieves get caught listing stolen documents openly on eBay, or offering them for sale to a knowledgeable collector who checks into their provenance.

But some thieves are in it for the love of the thing itself. In some cases, historical documents have more personal or emotional value than they do monetary value. Is this the oldest known photograph taken in your favorite city? An early engraving by your favorite artist? A special letter owned by one of your personal heroes? Some truly fanatical collectors can't bear to leave such treasures in the archives where they rightfully belong. We looked at a few notable document thieves who took things that didn't belong to them.

1. John Mark Tillmann

In January of this year, Tillmann was accused of stealing about 1000 documents and other artifacts from libraries and museums in several Canadian provinces. Tillman had set up the allegedly stolen objects in his house as if it was a museum. Since then, Tillman's 23-year-old son, Kyle, has also been arrested in connection with the crimes.

2. E. Forbes Smiley III

This guy got caught slicing rare maps out of library books in 2005 when he accidentally dropped an X-Acto knife on the floor of a library at Yale. Oops.

3. Barry Landau

Landau, a collector of presidential memorabilia, smuggled documents out of archival repositories using a laughably cloak-and-dagger method—hidden pockets in his clothes. He and his accomplice Jason Savedoff were caught in 2011, and admitted to stealing from historical collections in Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Washington, D.C.

4. Daniel D. Lorello

Sometimes document theft is an inside job. Lorello worked at the New York State Library for 30 years. Red flags went up when a retired historian saw an old letter listed for sale on eBay. The historian looked up the writer of the letter, and discovered that the letter belonged to the New York State Library.

5. Edward J. Renehan, Jr.

In 2008, Renehan was sentenced to 18 months in prison for stealing letters written by George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The letters were in the collection of Theodore Roosevelt, and were stolen from the Theodore Roosevelt Association while Renehan was acting director of the organization.

6. Charles Merrill Mount

Mount was by many accounts a talented artist and writer. He was convicted in 1988 of transporting stolen letters by prominent politicians and literary figures that belonged to the National Archives and the Library of Congress. The prosecution believed he had taken the documents, but was only able to prove that he had sold the stolen documents to a book store in Boston.

If you like stories like this, browse through the theft reports for the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries, which is a division of the American Library Association.

Primary image courtesy of Flickr user Photoshop Roadmap.

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May 9, 2013 - 2:00pm
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