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National Archives hunts for missing treasures with recovery team

The Archival Recovery Team, or ART, tracks down and recovers documents and artifacts that have been stolen from the National Archives and Records administration.

That's where the treasure hunters, as the Archival Recovery Team is known, come in.

Brachfeld, who came out of internal affairs at the Secret Service, assembled his team of criminal investigators five years ago. He pushes an aggressive approach, appealing to the public for help as agents did at the Civil War show.

Hits and misses

Many such efforts turn up nothing; the agents dispatched to Franklin flew home to Maryland with no new leads, but a handful of new contacts.

The outreach builds trust - and generates tips. Tips and leads from document dealers have helped the agents recover about 7,000 missing items that were stolen from the Archives or never made it into the agency's possession in the first place.

"We see things from our holdings we don't know if they were stolen last week or if great-grandpa took them," said Thomas Bennett, the team's computer crimes expert.

Stolen records often show up for sale on the open market. The "only known copy" of the Potsdam Declaration signed by Harry Truman demanding the surrender of Japan in 1945 is for sale on the Web site of the online auction house Alexander Autographs. The listed price is $100,000 to $150,000. The team did not try to get it back, though. They can't pursue everything.

Among the office's highest-profile cases was a theft by former Clinton national security adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger, who was fined $50,000 after pleading guilty in 2005 to stuffing his coat pockets and walking out of the Archives with classified counterterrorism documents.

Other recoveries include a map of Cuba with John F. Kennedy's notes in the margin. It was found after a dealer from Catonsville, Md., put it on eBay.

Ronald Reagan's high school yearbook, stolen from his presidential library in California, was returned by an employee who was exposed by a friend.

A letter Lincoln wrote on behalf of a fired U.S. Mint director five days before the Gettysburg address turned up in a private collection in Arizona before the owner agreed to donate it to where it belonged.

A year after Berger confessed, Jim Thomas was hunting for a birthday present for his brother, Dean, a Civil War buff from Gettysburg, Pa., and found for sale online a series of original letters to the Frankford Arsenal in Philadelphia, which supplied munitions to the Union Army. Dean recognized the letters from his research at the Archives for his books on Civil War munitions. He called the Archives. The seller turned out to be an intern at the Philadelphia branch. He confessed to smuggling more than 160 documents in the pages of a yellow legal pad. All but three were recovered.

Eighty-one boxes of records with national security value are still missing from the Archives' storage facility in Suitland, where federal agents discovered them missing last year. Between 2005 and 2007, original records from the Bureau of Indian Affairs were discovered dumped in the trash at the Washington headquarters.

Whether the crime was intentional or an accident is not known.

The FDR portrait is still missing, too. Brachfeld says he thinks he knows who did it, but doesn't have enough evidence to pursue a case.

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