5 Priceless Items Stolen From Presidential Libraries
Where’s Nicolas Cage when you need him? Though these thefts may not be quite as exciting as the search for the Declaration of Independence in National Treasure (2004), they’re still valuable pieces of presidential history that have disappeared from under the noses of museum curators and archivists at presidential libraries around the country.
1. GEM-STUDDED SWORDS AND DAGGERS, HARRY S. TRUMAN LIBRARY
There's no shortage of priceless historical documents at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, but the thieves who broke into the building at 6:30 a.m. on March 24, 1978, went for something a little more gaudy. With a single guard on duty, they smashed the museum’s glass entrance doors, then made a beeline for a case in the lobby that housed bejeweled swords, a scabbard, and a dagger—gifts from the Shah of Iran and the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia. The dagger and scabbard were studded with diamonds, rubies, and emeralds, and one sword included diamonds and gold (the other was mainly silver and steel). The weapons, which are still unaccounted for, have an estimated value of over $1 million.
2. ROCKING CHAIR, JOHN F. KENNEDY LIBRARY
When John F. Kennedy died, the Kennedy family entrusted his secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, to store a vast number of his documents and personal items. The family intended to sort through them all and eventually decide which items to donate to the Kennedy Library and which to keep for themselves. Instead, Lincoln absconded with thousands of pieces of memorabilia, from pens used to sign bills to the rocking chair the president used in the Oval Office. Lincoln sold or gave numerous items to collector Robert L. White, who kept some and sold some—including the Cuban Missile Crisis Map, the planning map JFK used during the 1962 missile scare. After White’s death in 2003, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) reached a settlement with his estate to reacquire many of the items.
3. OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PORTRAIT, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT LIBRARY
Franklin Delano Roosevelt admired the work of artist Ellen Emmet Rand so much that he asked her to paint three portraits of him; the last hung in the White House. Harry Truman later replaced the portrait with a different likeness of FDR, and sent the Rand piece to Roosevelt's son, John, who in turn donated it to the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park, New York. As far as we know, the painting hung without incident for decades. In 2004, the artist's grandson, Peter Rand, visited the library to research a novel he was writing about stolen historic documents that passed between FDR and Winston Churchill during WWII. Oddly enough, he was about to discover a missing historic object of his own.
While Rand was visiting the museum, he asked to view the famous portrait painted by his grandmother. That's when the library director made an embarrassing discovery: The 5-foot-by-4-foot painting was gone. After checking their records, the Roosevelt Library determined that the portrait had been on loan to the National Archives in Washington D.C., but was returned in 2001. Upon its arrival, staff decided to leave the painting in the 250-pound shipping crate to protect it while the museum was going through some renovations. It hasn’t been seen since. Peter Rand says the director of the museum speculated that it had been stolen or accidentally thrown out—but he thinks it's pretty hard to accidentally discard a 5-foot painting stored in a 250-pound crate. Either way, the disappearance has earned FDR's likeness a spot on the National Archives' Lost and Stolen Documents list.
4. INAUGURAL ADDRESS, FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT LIBRARY
In 2011, an employee at the Maryland Historical Society caught Jason Savedoff shoving documents into his jacket while his partner in crime, presidential collector Barry Landau, distracted employees. A few days after their arrests, NARA archivists and FBI officials raided Landau’s apartment—and described what they found as “Toys ‘R’ Us for historians.” They eventually recovered approximately 10,000 stolen items, including seven copies of FDR’s 1937 inaugural address stolen from his presidential library in Hyde Park. Among the speeches was the rain-streaked copy the president actually read at the event, marked with edits and notes in his own hand. Historical documents from George Washington, Marie Antoinette, Isaac Newton and more were also found in Landau’s possession. He ultimately received a 7-year prison sentence for his crimes; Savedoff was given 12 months.
5. CLASS RING, LYNDON B. JOHNSON LIBRARY
In 1963, the Coast Guard Academy class of '64 managed to score a pretty important commencement speaker: President John F. Kennedy. Obviously, Kennedy's assassination put a stop to those plans—but Lyndon B. Johnson kept his predecessor's commitment. To thank him, the Coast Guard Academy presented LBJ and Lady Bird Johnson with customized class rings made of 14-carat gold with yellow sapphire settings. The president's ring was gifted to the LBJ library in 1970. In 1989, renovations struck again—the ring and several other items went missing while pieces of the museum collection were relocated during museum remodeling. It still hasn't been determined whether the items were stolen or misplaced.
The National Archives has a special Archival Recovery Team dedicated to tracking down items like these, which go missing more than you might imagine. The team has managed to return quite a few artifacts to their rightful homes, including a letter from Abraham Lincoln and a high school yearbook belonging to Ronald Reagan. With any luck, some of these other pilfered pieces of history will eventually re-grace their presidential library displays.