Thousands of Historical Treasures Missing from National Archives

Thanks to a treasure trove of conmen specializing in irreplaceable and historical paraphernalia, thousands of artifacts have slowly gone missing over the years including original patents, documents signed by Voltaire and photographs taken by the first astronauts on the moon.

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A letter penned by Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, that was stolen by Barry Landau from the National Archives.

60 Minutes

If you’d like to see the Wright brothers’ original airplane patent, documents signed by Voltaire or some of the photographs taken by the first astronauts on the moon, you’re out of luck: these irreplaceable documents, along with thousands more, have been pilfered from the National Archives by opportunistic thieves.

According to a 60 Minutes broadcast on Sunday night, document theft has been a growing problem at the U.S. National Archives and Record Administration, as more and more items are discovered missing. A joint task force, the National Archives Archival Recovery Team, is charged with recovering the invaluable missing items. Though several artifacts, such as the original eyewitness report of the Hindenburg disaster, have been successfully recovered over the years, dozens of key pieces of history remain missing and unaccounted for.

(MORE: A Brief History of the National Archives)

Among some of the missing items: an original patent filed by Orville and Wilbur Wright in 1903 for a “Flying Machine” and the bomb maps for Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Nobody knows when some of the items had been stolen: the theft of the Wright brothers’ patent was only discovered in 2003 when an employee went to retrieve it for the event’s centennial.

Most of the missing items have wound up in the hands unscrupulous collectors or in overseas black markets, where retrieving the goods becomes much harder. Last year, a retired employee was convicted for stealing original sound recordings from the National Archives where he was caught selling the priceless items on eBay.

(MORE: On the Trail of Pilfered History)

Not every National Archives thief gets away with it. Sandy Berger, a Clinton Administration National Security Adviser, was fined $50,000 in 2005 for taking and destroying classified documents relating to terror plots leading up to 9/11. And a con man named Barry Landau was sentenced earlier this summer to seven years in prison for the theft and sale of National Archives documents. Landau, who claimed to be a presidential historian and went so far as to sew large pockets into his clothes to hide the historical stash, had stolen “thousands of items,” according to CBS News, including a rare 16th-century document written by a member of Italy’s storied Medici family and an original copy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1937 inaugural address.

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