RENO, Nev. — At first, Richard Johnston thought nothing of an online auction house's offer to sell a letter written in 1900 by a member of Butch Cassidy's infamous Wild Bunch for $5,999.
Later, the Old West history buff from Reno made a surprising discovery: The two-page letter from outlaw Willard E. Christiansen to Utah Gov. Heber Wells had been stolen from the Utah State Archives.
"I checked my files and discovered that I had seen the letter there in 1976," Johnston recalled. "As a historian, it makes you angry that these types of thefts are occurring."
Unlike countless cases at other institutions, at least this story had a happy ending: Utah officials confirmed the theft after Johnston contacted them last year, and the letter was returned to the archives.
The letter -- concerning Christiansen's promise to chase outlaws as a condition of his release from prison by Wells -- is part of what experts call a widespread national problem.
"Documents used to be the least sexy thing among cultural objects for thieves to steal, but not anymore," Nevada State Archivist Guy Rocha said.
Although the scope of the problem is difficult to assess because of a lack of government statistics, many historians, librarians and dealers think the thefts are on the rise because of the soaring value of such rare documents.
The popular PBS program "Antiques Roadshow" has made the public aware of the value of historical treasures, they say, and Ebay and other online auction sites has made it easier to sell stolen documents.
"I'd be surprised if most states haven't been hit by theft," said archival consultant Mimi Bowling, who conducts security workshops for the Chicago-based Society of American Archivists. "I think we've always had a problem, but I think because of the rising values that the problem is on the increase."
The opinion is not unanimous. Everett Wilkie Jr., chairman of an American Library Assn. committee that reports theft cases brought to its attention, is dubious.
"If I were going to guess, I don't think the problem is any worse," Wilkie said. "I think it's just being reported more, and people are more aware of it."
But Wilkie and other experts agree that a spike in prices has fueled a string of major document thefts from historical societies, libraries, archives and other governmental agencies nationwide.
* In December, four men were sentenced to seven years in prison for the 2004 theft of $735,000 worth of rare manuscripts and sketches -- including drawings by naturalist John James Audubon -- from the Transylvania University Library in Lexington, Ky. The four were accused of tying up and stunning the librarian with a Taser in what Wilkie called the first armed robbery targeting historic documents in U.S. history.
* In May, Howard Harner Jr. of Staunton, Va., was sentenced to two years in prison for smuggling more than 100 documents out of a National Archives research room from 1996 to 2002 and selling them through auctions. Among the stolen documents were ones signed by Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Gens. Philip Sheridan and George Custer.
* In 2002, Shawn P. Aubitz was sentenced to 21 months in prison for stealing hundreds of historic documents from 1996 to 1999 while curator at the National Archives branch in Philadelphia. Among the items taken were presidential pardons and autographed photographs of Apollo astronauts.
The thefts by Aubitz and Harner were uncovered when history buffs noticed some of their documents posted for sale on EBay. The stolen letter by the Wild Bunch member was found on a Las Vegas-based auction house's website.
"In some ways, technology is a blessing in disguise," Wilkie said. "Unfortunately, it can also work against us."
Bowling attributes the thefts to lax security and foxes like Aubitz guarding the henhouse.
In December, the National Archives and Records Administration announced a more aggressive approach by authorizing the National Coalition for History to search online auction sites for missing and stolen documents.
It also launched a website to list missing historic documents and imposed tougher security at its research rooms nationwide. Among other items, the National Archives is missing scores of Civil War documents and presidential pardons.
"It is imperative that the entire historical and archival community remain vigilant in identifying and reclaiming materials that have been stolen from our nation's repositories," said Allen Weinstein, archivist of the United States.
Utah officials acknowledge the person who stole the letter written by the Wild Bunch member probably will never be caught because the theft occurred in the early 1980s and the Las Vegas firm bought it from a company that went out of business.
The man who found it is just glad to see the letter returned because of its historic worth.
"It is a crime that material is being stolen from so many archives, for it deprives future researchers [of] insight into the past," Johnston said.