Searching cyberspace for history

Historians and the National Archives and Records Administration are collaborating to monitor auction house Web sites to find missing and stolen government records.

Since embarking on a pilot project three months ago, the public/private partnership has identified about 150 questionable items.

The idea for the first-ever methodical search of Web sites was conceived after Bruce Craig, director of the National Coalition for History, discovered a familiar document for sale online.

“I, of course, like many other people go on to eBay and belong to manuscript organizations that have items for sale,” he said. In 2003, Craig noticed a document that was signed by Franklin Roosevelt and marked by an official stamp for sale for a couple of hundred dollars on one of these organizations' Web sites. “That looked strangely reminiscent to me of a document from the [Franklin D.] Roosevelt Library. Here it was for sale. Lo and behold, NARA said it was from their collection.”

He said the third-party dealer who supplied the item to the organization claimed it was purchased at a collectors’ meeting. The organization suspended the sale and the owner “donated” the document back to NARA.

“It pointed out to me that there was a problem,” Craig said.

So, he submitted a proposal to the National Archives, asking for a $20,000 grant to identify the number of stolen and lost documents floating in cyberspace. Most importantly, he wanted to systematically search through auction and sales Web sites, listings and catalogs.

“The main objective of this is to serve as an incentive to dealers and collectors to be much more aware of documents that were potentially stolen or taken from government archives,” Craig said. “The second is to put unscrupulous people on notice that these activities are going to be watched. If they continue to engage in these activities, there’s a good chance they are going to get caught.”

The hunt for missing and stolen records is challenging, even for someone with the sharpest eyes. That is because many documents that initially appear to be from governmental archival holdings are actually one-time legitimate collectors’ items or are not part of NARA's scope of collections. The laws dictating which records belong in the National Archives have changed in the past years. Until 1978, records created by the president or his staff were considered the president’s personal property and were his to take when he left office. Private collectors could have acquired and sold such items legally. But a 1978 statute states that all presidential records created after 1981 belong to the government. Now, the National Coalition for History (NCH) is looking for presidential items that pre-date 1981 and more recent documents in hopes that the owners will donate those records to the National Archives.

“Documents do have a way of walking away from presidential libraries, from congressional repositories," he said. “It is a problem. It’s not an enormous problem, but it is a problem that requires vigilance in terms of alerting the National Archives.”

The prices of these collectibles range from $50 to thousands of dollars.

On announcing the pilot project, Archivist of the United States Allen Weinstein said, "I am pleased that the National Archives is partnering with the National Coalition for History on this critical issue. This agreement is a step forward in helping the National Archives recover unique historical documents that we hold in trust for our citizens.”

NARA began informally tracking auction house sites in 2004, assigning volunteers and student interns to the task. The pilot project, which will last a year, uses experienced researchers. Craig assigns trained historians and cultural resource experts to regularly scour dealers such as Christie’s, Sotheby's and PBA Galleries. They monitor the various Web sites according to how often the dealers update them.

“Certainly, auctioneers know how to identify government documents, but that does not always stop them from trying to sell them,” Craig said. “What they don’t know is whether these documents were part of the National Archives at one time or should be part of the National Archives.”

Of the 7,800 records NCH has searched to date, nothing suspicious has been noted at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. The big auction houses are more careful than the smaller shops, Craig said. Both he and NARA predict that only a handful of NCH's referrals will ultimately be worth pursuing.

James Hastings, director of NARA access programs, said the agency has recommended that its legal counsel take action on two of the 150 items NCH has flagged so far. The team is analyzing them for further action.

The scope of NCH’s detective work covers missing or stolen federal, state, local and international government records. When Craig’s workers find a suspect sale, Craig forwards the information to NARA, state government officials, the State Department or the Homeland Security Department. Foreign documents – of which he has forwarded about five – must go to DHS or State.

NCH employees, who are hired contractors, look at the documents holistically. They note who generated the record, to whom it is addressed and any stamps or embossing. Documents with punched holes could indicate that the piece is from a book. Serial numbers are also clues.

“It doesn’t require the use of Web crawlers,” Craig said. “It requires someone knowledgeable about the definition of what a government document is.”

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