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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There's no shortage of priceless historical documents at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri, but the thieves who broke into the building at 6:30 a.m. on March 24, 1978, went for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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Courtesy Sotheby's
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You Can Buy the Oldest Surviving Photo of a U.S. President
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Courtesy Sotheby's

The descendent of a 19th-century U.S. Congressman has discovered a previously unknown presidential portrait that is likely the oldest surviving photograph of a U.S. president, The New York Times reports.

Previously, two 1843 portraits of John Quincy Adams were thought to be the oldest photographs of a president still around. Currently hanging in the National Portrait Gallery, one of them was found on sale at an antique shop in 1970 for a mere 50 cents. Now, an even older photo of the sixth president has been uncovered, and it’ll cost you more than 50 cents to buy it.

Adams sat for dozens of photographs throughout his life, so it’s not entirely surprising that a few more surviving portraits would be uncovered. At the time this newly discovered half-plate daguerreotype was taken in March 1843, Adams had already served out his term as president and had returned to Congress as a U.S. Representative from Massachusetts. The photo was taken by Philip Haas, who in August of that same year would take other daguerreotypes that we previously thought were the oldest surviving photos. (Despite his apparent willingness to be photographed, Adams called them “all hideous.”)

John Quincy Adams sits in a portrait studio in 1843.
Courtesy Sotheby's

After having three daguerreotypes taken that day in March, Adams gave one of them to his friend and fellow Congressman Horace Everett, inscribing it with both their names. Everett’s great-great-grandson eventually found it in his family’s belongings and is now putting it up for sale through Sotheby’s.

It isn't the oldest picture of a U.S. president ever taken, though. The first-ever was actually a portrait of William Henry Harrison made in 1841, but unlike this one, the original has not survived. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns a copy of it, which was made in 1850.)

The head of the Sotheby’s department for photographs, Emily Bierman, told The New York Times that the newly discovered image is “without a doubt the most important historical photo portrait to be offered at auction in the last 20 years.” (She also noted that the former POTUS is wearing “cute socks” in it.)

The daguerreotype will be on sale as part of a photography auction at Sotheby’s in October and is expected to sell for an estimated $150,000 to $250,000. Start saving.

[h/t The New York Times]

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The Great Presidential Pardon Heist

Awarded by the Commander-in-Chief, presidential pardons override previous rulings handed down by any other federal judge or court. Some presidents are more generous with pardons than others, but overall, they’ve been granted with increasing frequency since Washington issued the first 16, including two for participants of the Whiskey Rebellion. By contrast, Barack Obama pardoned, commuted, or otherwise granted clemency to 1927 people.

Despite the increasing number, receiving a pardon is no easy task. First, there’s a required waiting period of five years. Applicants must write an essay about why they are seeking clemency, including documentation; they also need at least three character references, and they have to go through a “very thorough” federal review. And that’s just for starters.

However, if you’re determined to get a presidential pardon, there are other ways to go about obtaining one (though we don't recommend it)—as long as you don’t care whose name is on the certificate. Just ask Shawn Aubitz.

Some time in the middle of his 14-year career as a curator with the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Aubitz realized he was sitting on a gold mine: The files, letters, maps, and photographs he handled every day could command big bucks from the right collectors. From 1996-1999, he pulled off the historical heist of the century simply by surreptitiously slipping documents into his briefcase. Over the three-year period, Aubitz made off with hundreds of items, including 64 pardons and 316 photos taken by astronauts.

Though the number is rather staggering, the thefts weren’t discovered until 2000, when a National Park Service employee noticed a suspicious item for sale on eBay and notified the National Archives about the auction. The National Archives Office of the Inspector General quickly took action and discovered a total of four National Archives documents on eBay. The items were traced to Aubitz, who pled guilty to the crimes in 2002. In court, Aubitz blamed his actions on “a compulsive need to amass collections for self-esteem and approval,” but also admitted that his motives were financial—he used more than $200,000 in ill-gotten funds to pay his credit card debt. Aubitz served 21 months in prison for his crimes and paid $73,793 in restitution.

Because Aubitz provided the names of his buyers, many of the pilfered items were recovered, such as a warrant for the seizure of Robert E. Lee's estate during the Civil War. Many are still missing, however, including pardons issued by 10 presidents, from James Madison to Rutherford B. Hayes. So, history buffs, if you’re not totally sure about the origins of that Andrew Jackson-signed pardon hanging on your study wall, contact NARA at MissingDocuments@nara.gov.

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