Shortly after the library of the Maryland Historical Society opened on the warm morning of July 9, two men dressed in jackets and ties arrived at the society’s Mt. Vernon complex. After registering at the front desk, they made their way to the library on the second floor. They were expected, having e-mailed a list of historic documents they wished to view days earlier.
The older man, whose dark, slicked-back hair, puffy face, and thin gray beard stood in stark contrast to his younger counterpart’s boyish good looks, presented himself as 63-year-old Barry Landau, an esteemed collector of presidential memorabilia and published historian doing research for a new book. The younger man, he said, was his nephew. On the surface, their story seemed to check out.
They stored their belongings in locker number 11 while they looked at the requested items. Inside the H. Furlong Baldwin Library, which houses 7 million national artifacts, including Francis Scott Key’s original manuscript of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” they were permitted only notepads and laptops. The younger man put the locker key in his pocket.
The library was bustling with dozens of researchers as the two men situated themselves at a table toward the front of the room. Mere feet away stood the special collections request desk, manned by two librarians. They chatted up the two librarians working that morning and even handed them a bag of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, brought specifically for them. On a previous visit, Landau had made an impression on the staff by bringing them cupcakes. Throughout this visit, he, along with his guest, acted like gentlemen.
But as the day wore on, the duo’s behavior began to raise the suspicions of library staff. The two men seemed to be specifically requesting collections and manuscripts that did not contain photocopies, forcing staff to hand over priceless historic documents. Moreover, as morning turned to afternoon, the older man continuously approached the front desk to chat and namedrop with the librarians on duty, all while blocking their view of his young assistant.
David Angerhofer was an archivist working that summer day. A part-time employee with deep-set eyes and a shaved head, the 39-year-old Angerhofer is soft spoken. But when he began to take notice of the two men’s strange behavior and look closer at the collection requests they were making, which included original 19th-century inauguration programs and tickets to President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, alarms began to ring in his head. “They didn’t seem trustworthy,” he says.
And so he did what any protector of a national treasure would do: he watched them “like a hawk.” After conferring, the staff had a bad feeling that they were being robbed right under their noses. But they needed proof.
Once activity in the library died down, Angerhofer removed himself from the duo’s vicinity. “I spent a lot of time outside of the reading room just making sure those guys were nice and relaxed,” he says.
Late in the afternoon, Angerhofer made his way up a back staircase to the balcony that overlooks the two-tiered library. From behind, he saw the older man talking to the librarian at the front desk, positioned perfectly to obscure the research table where his young assistant sat. As he peered down at the researchers below, he watched the younger man place his papers on top of one of the historic documents on the table and sweep them all into his portfolio. Angerhofer had his proof.
As he made his way back downstairs to confront the two, police were called. When officers arrived they found 79 documents, worth millions of dollars, stuffed in a black laptop case in locker number 11, including an 1861 land grant signed by Abraham Lincoln estimated to be worth $300,000. The young assistant still had the locker’s key.
Nearly six hours after they arrived, Barry Landau and his 24-year-old counterpart, Jason Savedoff, were escorted out of the Maryland Historical Society in handcuffs. In the weeks that followed, the full extent of their crimes became clear, ultimately revealing one of the biggest heists of national treasures in American history.
In the wake of the arrests, the Maryland Historical Society had become a crime scene, with visits and phone calls from Baltimore City Police, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the National Archives Recovery Team, and the U.S. Attorney’s office. It was not only the 60 documents from the historical society that had been found in the duo’s locker that concerned authorities—it was that 19 of those documents were not from the Maryland Historical Society.
As Landau and Savedoff sat in a state detention center, a warning call went out to libraries and historical societies up and down the East Coast. Not long after, institutions from New York to Connecticut and Pennsylvania all began to report documents missing from their collections. And as they checked their logs, sure enough, each institution had been visited by Landau and Savedoff in previous months.
“It was like dominoes,” says Patricia Anderson, director of publications and library services at the Maryland Historical Society.
On July 12 and August 2, two search warrants were executed on Landau’s Manhattan apartment. When all was said and done, authorities left with 10,000 documents and artifacts. So far, 4,000 of those have been confirmed stolen. They include a letter written by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1878 stolen from the Connecticut Historical Society, a 1797 letter written by John Adams from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and a letter taken from the University of Vermont written in 1874 by Karl Marx.
Perhaps most telling, authorities found sports coats and jackets with hidden pockets that had been deepened to properly conceal stolen documents from library staff. They found checklists that identified the documents, where they were stolen from, and whether there existed any “finding aid” at the institution that could reveal the document’s disappearance, such as microfilm. Police also discovered sandpaper and other precision tools that Landau and Savedoff used to remove any traceable notations on a document that could lead back to the institution from which it was stolen. According to court documents, this final step was referred to as “performing surgery.” The investigation began to paint a clearer picture of how the duo orchestrated an operation to pillage some of the nation’s most respected institutions of some of their most priceless treasures.
Between the time when authorities believe their conspiracy began, in December 2010, and the day of arrests, Landau and Savedoff visited at least six institutions across the Northeast, targeted specifically for the monetary value of their collections. And it’s clear Landau was successful in selling some of the stolen documents, including four speeches delivered by Franklin Roosevelt that contain the 32nd President’s handwritten annotations as well as his signature. Landau sold the speeches to a collector for $35,000. Also in his possession were three annotated inaugural speeches delivered by Roosevelt that likely would have fetched in excess of $100,000 a piece.
Inspector General Paul Brachfeld of the National Archives and Records Administration says, after an extensive investigation, “The scope and notoriety of what we have seized and secured in this case is truly breathtaking.”
After the initial shock of the thefts wore off, media and collectors around the country began to wonder who this odd couple really was, and what motivated their brazen robbery, dubbed “the Great Cupcake Caper” by workers at the Maryland Historical Society.
Many in the collecting world already knew Barry Landau—or thought they did.
Although Landau is, by birth, a New Yorker with modest roots, the Manhattan apartment he’s called home for 30 years is the stuff of legend. Located on West 57th Street, near Central Park, the apartment is testimony to Landau’s lifelong obsession with presidential objects. Landau has claimed to have more than a million artifacts in his possession, from Frank Sinatra’s ticket to Franklin Roosevelt’s 1945 inauguration to the key to the original White House door. Landau’s collection of inaugural memorabilia is so immense it rivals even the Smithsonian’s.
Landau has said on numerous occasions that his fascination with the presidency began when he was 10 years old after a chance encounter with President Dwight D. Eisenhower at an airport. A self-described “schmoozer” and “name-dropper,” Landau’s immersion in priceless memorabilia landed him in elite social circles and led to numerous television appearances.
Before Landau’s website was taken down, it declared him “America’s Presidential Historian.” Photos showed him with his arms wrapped around Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. W. Bush, shaking hands with Richard Nixon, and posing with actors like Alec Baldwin and Morgan Freeman.
Landau wrote a 2007 coffee-table book on presidential entertaining and dining, The President’s Table, that boasts blurbs from Henry Kissinger, Arthur Schlesinger, and longtime 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace. Videos on his site showed him appearing on The Martha Stewart Show, the Today show, and various cable-news networks to discuss everything from Chelsea Clinton’s wedding to Ronald Reagan’s funeral. In almost every appearance, Landau brought a prized object from his collection to show off, sometimes interjecting it at the end of the segment to be sure it made it on the air.
Landau has also claimed to have worked for every presidential administration since Lyndon B. Johnson and advised on multiple inaugurations. However, such claims have come under scrutiny since his arrest, with numerous presidential libraries stating that there is no record of Landau working in any official capacity for the White House.
Interestingly, Landau’s first brush with fame came long before he was “America’s Presidential Historian.” In the 1970s, Landau pushed his way into the world of celebrities who frequented Studio 54, the widely popular New York City nightclub. Andy Warhol’s diaries document much of that scene, and Landau is a reccurring character.
Warhol first refers to Landau in an October, 1977 entry as “that creepy guy we can’t figure out, who somehow gets himself around everywhere with every celebrity.” Warhol goes on to mention Landau about 20 more times, carping about the way Landau was with him “like glue” at one party and stating that Landau was one of the “worst people to have your unlisted number.”
In the Studio 54 scene, Landau—who was thinner then, with a fuller, darker beard—garnered a reputation as a slippery self-promoter. In one instance, Warhol writes that Landau asked a young French model named Diane de Beauvau if she wanted to be on The Mike Douglas Show. Believing Landau to be a friend offering her a favor, she agreed—only to receive a $2,000 bill from Landau some days after her appearance.
Despite his obnoxious behavior, Landau’s relationship with Warhol and many of the other celebrities at Studio 54 only came to a breaking point in August, 1979, when Landau told The New York Post that President Jimmy Carter’s chief of staff, Hamilton Jordan, had been at Studio 54 asking where he could score cocaine. It sparked a controversy for the Carter White House, and while Landau got his picture in the paper, he lost the acceptance of the celebrities he so desperately sought.
When the case against Jordan collapsed—the special prosecutor expressed doubts about Landau’s trustworthiness—Landau was left with no one. It would be about a decade before he would restore his image, emerging in the 1990s not as a celebrity socialite, but as a professional collector. However, the reputation Landau earned in the 1970s would continue throughout his life.
“He had an exaggerated sense of self-importance,” says Anderson, the Maryland Historical Society employee, who had met Landau before his arrest. It is a description echoed by Angerhofer, who says Landau bragged about, among other things, his friendship with Don Rickles when chatting with librarians.
Far less is known about Landau’s counterpart, Jason Savedoff. Despite Landau’s claim at the Maryland Historical Society, Savedoff is not his nephew. Indeed, the extent of their relationship and how they met is largely unclear, and the subject of considerable speculation. Although Savedoff lived with Landau for a period of time, and there have been rumors that they had a romantic relationship, none has been confirmed. Both men declined to be interviewed for this article and their respective attorneys have refused to comment on their relationship, with Landau’s lawyers describing it as a “personal matter.”
What is known is Savedoff grew up in a wealthy area of Vancouver. His parents are divorced and he has a younger brother named Luke. The two brothers could be seen in a YouTube video that has since been taken down, with Luke juggling and dancing to music as the camera flashes to Jason twice tearing open his tank top.
Savedoff, 24, also speaks French fluently and plays the violin. He attended a preppy Vancouver boarding school for boys called St. George’s School. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree from McGill University and modeled for a period of time. Savedoff has used several aliases during his life, including Jason James and Justin Ward. Searching those names uncovers an Internet trail that allows a glimpse into this young man’s life.
Savedoff appears to have created a website around the time he moved to New York City in 2009. Entitled “Hiboulution,” the site seeks to build a global network of people who embrace “universal tolerance, a higher level of civility, and an elevated collective conscious.” Savedoff offers a variety of services on the site, including violin performance, public speaking, and modeling under the sole condition that a minimum donation of $100 be made to a qualified charity. “You save money, we both get good karma, those in need benefit,” Savedoff writes. A video on the site shows Savedoff in a suit, playing a variety of songs on the violin, from composer Georges Bizet to “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. A portfolio of what appear to be professional photographs show him modeling Emporio Armani underwear on a beach and holding his violin while baring his chest on a city street.
On the biography page of the website, Savedoff writes that upon his graduation from McGill, he returned to Vancouver to care for his last-surviving grandmother, Mary Jane Schang. An obituary published in The New York Times confirms that she died on July 21, 2008. “Marching to the beat of his own drum,” the bio reads, “Jason took a unique approach to the grieving process: He moved to Miami, signed with a top modeling agency, and enjoyed a successful stint in the fashion world.” As winter turned to spring, his bio concludes, he returned to Vancouver to spend time with his family before moving to New York City. It is there that Savedoff and Landau are believed to have met.
Initially, both men pled not guilty to the federal charges against them, which include conspiracy and theft of major artwork. But as the evidence mounted, that changed. In October, Savedoff changed his plea to guilty and began to cooperate with prosecutors, alleging that he worked “subservient” to Landau.
Landau continued to hold firm to his innocence. His attorneys insisted he had been taken advantage of by Savedoff, and that the disintegration of their close relationship had come as great blow to Landau. However, in February, Landau appeared in a Baltimore courtroom to change his plea to guilty, hardly seeming like the charmer that strolled into the Maryland Historical Society seven months prior. Dressed in a black pinstripe suit, he walked with a cane and a black patch covered his right eye, possibly because he is partially blind. He looked tired and defeated as he refused to acknowledge the horde of reporters surrounding him.
Landau is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court on May 7, with Savedoff’s sentencing expected some time this summer. Both men face a maximum of 15 years in prison and fines totaling $500,000. If Landau receives and serves the maximum sentence, he will be nearly 80 years old when he is released from prison—too old to pull off the same kind of reinventing act he accomplished after the Jordan affair in 1979.
Despite the facade created by the priceless objects around him, Landau is not a rich man. It court, he claimed that he had $1,544 to his name when he was arrested. In October, he asked for court permission to sell a Warhol print of Elizabeth Taylor to help pay for some of his legal fees, and the fines his sentence could carry will likely force him to sell more of the memorabilia he has spent a lifetime acquiring.
How Landau was ever able to afford his collection remains murky. When it was revealed that Landau’s 2010 tax returns showed an income of just $11,000, prosecutors said they believed Landau had money stashed away somewhere and could thus be a flight risk if released on bail. Through the years Landau has said he acquired various objects at flea markets or as gifts, such as the Sinatra inauguration ticket, which Landau says was given to him by Sinatra himself. By surrounding himself with the rich and famous, it seems Landau was able to get his hands on objects that would have otherwise been forgotten in a drawer or closet. Like the celebrity status he so coveted, his own stature seems to be largely illusory.
One person who has stood by Landau even after his guilty plea is Lynn von Furstenberg, the second wife of the late fashion designer Prince Egon von Furstenberg. Reached by phone at her home on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, von Furstenberg, who has known Landau for 25 years, says that he is “the easiest patsy to set up in the world,” alleging that Savedoff acted alone.
“The person that I’ve read about online is not the person that I know,” she says of Landau. It is an understandable sentiment. Indeed, the image that has emerged of Landau stands in stark contrast to the persona he has projected for decades, leaving many to ask a question that has gone largely unanswered: Who is the real Barry Landau?
In a 2007 C-SPAN appearance filmed at a Georgetown Barnes & Noble, a glimpse of the real Barry Landau, both sympathetic and desperate for recognition, seems to reveal itself. In discussing his book on presidential protocol, Landau sprinkles much of the hour and a half with anecdotes from his own life, mentioning his “buddy” Tony Bennett and his “friend” Barbara Walters, as well as various trips to the White House. The audience is small but captivated by the stories of a man who seems to know everyone, laughing at some of his jokes.
As the lecture wraps up, one woman asks Landau, a frequenter of New York flea markets, how he picks which markets to visit when searching for the next prized addition to his collection.
“I just look at myself as a temporary caretaker,” he says at first, modestly adding that he views the collection he has amassed as a gift to the country. But, returning to the question, Landau says with a chuckle, “I really go where the bounty is the biggest.”