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Guardians of the nation's attic

The National Archives keeps watch over 10 billion historical records. And its treasure hunting team keeps watch over collector shows and EBay for the scraps of valuable history that have been stolen.

August 08, 2010|By Faye Fiore, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from College Park, Md. — When Paul Brachfeld took over as inspector general of the National Archives, guardian of the country's most beloved treasures, he discovered the American people were being stolen blind.

The Wright Brothers 1903 Flying Machine patent application? Gone.

A copy of the Dec. 8, 1941 "Day of Infamy" speech autographed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and tied with a purple ribbon? Gone.

Target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war telegrams written by Abraham Lincoln and a scabbard and belt given to Harry S. Truman? Gone, gone and gone.

Citizens of a democracy must have access to their history, Brachfeld understood. But what kind of country leaves its attic door open, allowing its past to slip away? His solution: Assemble a team of national treasure hunters.

They are two earnest federal agents and a bookish historian dutifully scouring Civil War collector shows, dealer inventories and the Internet for bits of Americana that wind up on an EBay auction block. They sift through leads from disgruntled divorcees ("I was going through his junk and I found this document…") and set straight do-gooders convinced they've just gotten hold of the Gettysburg Address.

It is mission impossible by any measure; the National Archives keeps watch over 10 billion federal, congressional and presidential records. The most famous -- the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights -- are enshrined in the magnificent granite headquarters blocks from the White House. But they are a sliver of the nation's important stuff, much of it shelved or boxed all over the country. (Indeed, the dismantled pieces of Parkland Hospital's Trauma Room 1, where President Kennedy was pronounced dead, are in an underground cave in Kansas that no one intends to open.)

Now the Archival Recovery Team, as the treasure hunters are formally known, is asking the American people to help find what rightfully belongs to them. They published a pamphlet on how to recognize an historical federal document, and who to call if you find one. The Wright Brothers patent -- lost or stolen in the '80s, no one knows for sure -- was May's featured missing item on the archives' Facebook page.

"We have taken theft out of the shadows," Brachfeld said, recalling the days when embarrassing losses were kept secret. "We want people to know we live, we exist. If it's gone, we want it back. And if it's stolen, we will do our best to send whoever took it to jail."

This day, Brachfeld and his team are gathered around a conference table here at Archives II, a big, bland building in the Maryland suburbs that belies the history between its climate-controlled walls: Jackie Kennedy's blood-stained pink Chanel suit, the deed of gift for the Statue of Liberty, Eva Braun's photo albums.

Mitchell Yockelson, a veteran archivist, is the team's historical brains. He decides what belongs to the nation and what doesn't. Special agents Kelly Maltagliati and Dave Berry are the law enforcement brawn. They carry guns and raid houses.

Much has changed since Brachfeld, who came out of the Secret Service internal affairs, took the job a decade ago and was alarmed by a string of brazen thefts, some by trusted archives staff.

In 2001, Shaun Aubitz, in charge of preparing exhibits of the Philadelphia holdings, took virtually all of the collection's presidential pardons and the deed to the hillside home of Robert E. Lee, whose front yard became Arlington National Cemetery. A dealer Aubitz tried to sell to became suspicious and reported him. When Brachfeld looked Aubitz in the eye and asked, "Did you take more than we'll ever know?" Aubitz only winked.

A few years later, a buyer shopping on EBay spotted Civil War documents he had seen in Washington's archives collection and alerted authorities. A history buff named Howard Harner confessed to smuggling more than 100 of them out of the archives' research room in his clothes over a six-year period, slicing off valuable signatures with a razor blade. Forty-two were recovered from his home; the team is still searching for the rest.

Security tightened. Surveillance cameras scan the premises at all of the archives' 44 facilities and presidential libraries. Guards patrol. No purses, briefcases or jackets are allowed in the research rooms. Registrars keep track of what goes out and who signed for it. When Archivist of the United States David Ferriero showed up at his downtown Washington office one Sunday morning, the cameras caught him "breaking in" -- and he runs the place.

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