Wouldn’t it be nice to view the original patent for the Wright Brothers’ history-making 1903 flying machine? Unfortunately, you can’t. The document hasn’t been seen since 1980. It was discovered missing in 2003 and is now presumed stolen.
And it’s not the only priceless American artifact that has been swiped by sticky-fingered history buffs in recent years. In fact, government officials have seen a substantial increase in thefts at the National Archives, the agency tasked with preserving and documenting American artifacts of historical significance. The problem is so bad that the U.S. government has created a task force -- the National Archives Recovery Team -- to get the items back. The recovery team is the subject of an upcoming segment on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” which will air on Sunday, Oct. 28, at 7 p.m.
With help from the F.B.I., the recovery team chases after stolen artifacts and aims to hunt down suspected thieves. One of their most notable recent arrests was Barry Landau, a career criminal who posed as a presidential historian to gain access to the archives. During his decades-long fake career, Landau managed to make off with thousands of precious artifacts, including letters signed by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He even managed to swipe a 533-year-old document written by a member of Italy’s Medici family. Paul Brachfeld, the National Archives’ inspector general, told “60 Minutes” that the collective value of the stolen documents was “astronomical.”
“It’s basically how much the market would bear,” he added. “To some collector, one document could be worth millions.”
Most people know the National Archives as the building in Washington, D.C., that houses the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, but the agency actually preserves anywhere from 2 to 5 percent of all the federal records generated in any given year. Established in 1934 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the archives contain about 10 billion pages of textual records -- not to mention maps, charts, photographs, film reels, video tape, sound recordings and about 133 terabytes of electronic data. Given this escalating unwieldiness, it’s no wonder items often turn up missing.
Unwieldy or no, not everyone thinks the National Archives is doing such a terrific job of keeping track. In 2010, a year-long audit by the Government Accountability Office -- the watchdog arm of Congress -- found that the agency has a sizable backlog of documents that still need to be preserved. The investigation also found that agency officials often do not follow proper procedures when they dispose of documents. If safeguards were overlooked, some of the missing artifacts, including the Wright Brothers patent, might not have been stolen at all. Rather, they might have been accidentally destroyed.
Fortunately, not all hope is lost. The agency, in its efforts to retrieve stolen items, has managed to recover some truly historical items, including photos taken by astronauts on the moon and an original eyewitness radio report of the Hindenburg disaster.
The National Archives has set up a website to help its recovery team track down objects. Check it out here.