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5 Priceless Items Stolen From Presidential Libraries

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Getty / Hulton Archive / Staff

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

A black and white picture of a dagger and scabbard on a woven background. The scabbard is ornate and bejeweled, as is the hilt of the dagger.
The National Archives

There's no shortage of priceless historical documents at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, but the thieves who broke into the building at 6:30 a.m. on March 24, 1978, went for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

Paperwork from the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library that provides details about Johnson's missing rings.
The Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential 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.

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Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
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Barack Obama Taps Kehinde Wiley to Paint His Official Presidential Portrait
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Kehinde Wiley
Kehinde Wiley Studio, Inc., Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Kehinde Wiley, an American artist known for his grand portraits of African-American subjects, has painted Michael Jackson, Ice-T, and The Notorious B.I.G. in his work. Now the artist will have the honor of adding Barack Obama to that list. According to the Smithsonian, the former president has selected Wiley to paint his official presidential portrait, which will hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Wiley’s portraits typically depict black people in powerful poses. Sometimes he models his work after classic paintings, as was the case with "Napoleon Leading the Army Over the Alps.” The subjects are often dressed in hip-hop-style clothing and placed against decorative backdrops.

Portrait by Kehinde Wiley
"Le Roi a la Chasse"
Kehinde Wiley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Smithsonian also announced that Baltimore-based artist Amy Sherald has been chosen by former first lady Michelle Obama to paint her portrait for the gallery. Like Wiley, Sherald uses her work to challenge stereotypes of African-Americans in art.

“The Portrait Gallery is absolutely delighted that Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald have agreed to create the official portraits of our former president and first lady,” Kim Sajet, director of the National Portrait Gallery, said in a press release. “Both have achieved enormous success as artists, but even more, they make art that reflects the power and potential of portraiture in the 21st century.”

The tradition of the president and first lady posing for portraits for the National Portrait Gallery dates back to George H.W. Bush. Both Wiley’s and Sherald’s pieces will be revealed in early 2018 as permanent additions to the gallery in Washington, D.C.

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The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway
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Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On October 14, 1912—105 years ago today—Theodore Roosevelt was on the campaign trail in Milwaukee, running for another term. It was a tough race: Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson proved to be a formidable opponent, and William Howard Taft, while unpopular, was the Republican incumbent. Roosevelt was running as a third-party Progressive, and in order to keep pace with his big-ticket rivals he had to work hard. By this point in the election season, he was giving 15 to 20 speeches per day, most of which stretched on for an hour or sometimes more. But this day, TR didn't feel too well. His throat was scratchy, he was tired, and so he planned a relatively quick stop.

What Roosevelt and his security team didn't know was that a man with a .38 caliber revolver had been trailing the campaign since they departed New Orleans. For a thousand miles, he rode quietly, just waiting to get his shot at the Colonel.

John Schrank was a Bavarian-born saloon-keeper from New York. He'd had some strange and troubling dreams in recent months, mostly about President McKinley, whose assassination resulted in Roosevelt's first term. In his dreams, Schrank said that President McKinley asked him to avenge his death and protect democracy from a three-term president. All Schrank had to do was kill Roosevelt before he could be reelected.

"BUT FORTUNATELY I HAD MY MANUSCRIPT"

Roosevelt stood in the seat of his automobile to wave at the crowds and Schrank, who was standing in the front row of the crowd, had his shot. He took aim: point-blank, right at Roosevelt’s head. Then three things happened at the same time. A bystander hit Schrank’s arm; Roosevelt’s security detail spotted the gun and leapt from the car; Schrank pulled the trigger. The shot landed squarely in Roosevelt’s chest just as Schrank was tackled and put in a headlock by the bodyguard. Roosevelt is said not to have noticed he was hit until he reached into his overcoat and felt the blood on his fingers.

But it turns out that Teddy’s long-winded speeches saved his life that day: The bullet traveled through a 50-page copy of his prepared speech and the steel eyeglasses case he carried in the same pocket. The bullet was slowed enough not to reach his lung or heart, which Teddy deduced from the absence of blood when he spoke or coughed. He refused to go to a hospital and insisted on giving his speech.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose,” he began. He spoke for at least 55 more minutes (though some estimates say 90), still wearing his blood-soaked shirt. (You can read a stenographer’s report of his speech here.)

The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book.
The pages of the speech that saved Roosevelt's life were later bound into a book, which—along with the eyeglasses case and the shirt TR was wearing—can be seen at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.
Erin McCarthy

Roosevelt would spend the next eight days in the hospital. The bullet had lodged in his chest wall and removing it was deemed too unsafe. The wound healed and he never reported trouble from the injury again. Despite having lived through his assassination attempt, the presidency would not be Teddy’s again: Woodrow Wilson’s 41 percent of the vote meant the office would be his, though Roosevelt did beat out incumbent Taft, marking the only time a sitting president has come in third place in a reelection bid.

Schrank, in the meantime, was apprehended immediately. He lived the rest of his life in an insane asylum, and died of pneumonia in 1943.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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