Expert Outflanks Swindler Of History

Gettysburg historian Wayne E. Motts will be honored at the National Archives for alerting authorities to a stolen 1861 military letter he spotted on eBay.
Gettysburg historian Wayne E. Motts will be honored at the National Archives for alerting authorities to a stolen 1861 military letter he spotted on eBay. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 13, 2005

The old letter contained an obscure Army officer's report about bandits on the California frontier in the winter of 1861. It was the signature at the end that grabbed the attention of Wayne E. Motts.

The three-page, handwritten document was signed by Lewis A. Armistead, then a lowly U.S. Army officer, but later the Confederate general who died leading a famous doomed charge in the Battle of Gettysburg. Motts knew that the letter, which was being offered for sale on eBay, was rare. Few "Armisteads" reached the collectors' market.

He knew that letter particularly well. Ten years earlier, he examined it himself -- at the National Archives in Washington. And he knew there was only one way it could be offered on eBay: It had been stolen.

Motts's realization one night last year, as he sat at his computer in his home outside Gettysburg, Pa., sparked an investigation that led to the discovery of scores of stolen archives documents and the conviction of a reclusive Virginia researcher who was sentenced to prison last month for taking them.

The thefts sent a wave of anxiety through the nation's beleaguered historical repositories, as well as the usually staid but often high-stakes market in which historical documents are bought and sold.

Motts, 38, the director of Gettysburg's Adams County Historical Society, is scheduled to be honored at the National Archives today for alerting authorities to the pilfered Armistead letter.

Howard Harner, 68, a relic hunter and collector from Staunton who admitted to stealing more than 100 documents and selling many of them, was sentenced last month to two years in prison. He pleaded guilty in March.

Harner, a history buff since the 1960s, said in a telephone interview last week that his stealing occurred over the past few years. "My problem is of recent vintage," he said. And though investigators said he netted more than $47,000, he said money wasn't the object at first.

"It wasn't initiated that way," he said. "It was the interest in the individual composition, and [the author's] importance later on during the Civil War. It began that way, then economic necessity forced disposal gradually."

Harner is believed to have taken the documents between 1996 and 2002, said Paul Brachfeld, the archives inspector general. Harner might have taken more than the authorities know, Brachfeld said last week. Only 42 documents have been recovered. Investigators are trying to track the rest, some of which might be in the hands of collectors who don't know the documents are stolen.

Harner, who hid the papers in his clothing while researching in the archives' downtown Washington headquarters, took letters signed by such figures as Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Union generals Ulysses S. Grant and George A. Custer.

But authorities said he also stole documents bearing the less well-known but still highly marketable signatures of such people as Armistead and the Confederate generals George Pickett and Ambrose P. Hill.

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