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Dean & Jim Thomas Find Archives Theft On eBay

Deborah Fitts

(Feb/Mar 2007) GETTYSBURG, Pa. - A researcher's extensive knowledge of armory records has led to the discovery of the theft of dozens of Civil War-related documents from the National Archives.

No one has yet been charged. However, the Archives' Office of Inspector General and an assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia have focused on an individual who worked at an Archives' branch in the Northeast last summer. Paul Brachfeld, the Archives' inspector general, said the individual "was able to physically access those documents and was able to avoid the internal controls that may have been in place." He declined to name the actual facility where the alleged theft occurred. Charges could be filed this winter.

Dean Thomas, owner of Thomas Publications, and his brother Jim stumbled upon the crime last fall while bidding on the online auction house eBay.

Dean said his brother noticed several Frankford Arsenal items for sale. The federal facility, located in Philadelphia for 150 years till closing in the 1970s, manufactured ordnance, a special interest of the Thomases.

Dean has authored a dozen books, mostly on Civil War small arms and ammunition - bullets and cartridges. He has traveled the country for 30 years visiting repositories with ordnance information. The Frankford Arsenal records "are probably the most complete" of all the federal arsenals, he said.

Jim decided to bid on three of the documents. The bidding was due to close Sept. 24. "Just for chuckles," Dean said, "I went to eBay to see how he was doing. He won all three," for $303. Dean also studied several other Frankford-related documents being offered. One was a letter written during the war by the Austrian consul to the arsenal commander regarding experimenting with Austrian cartridges.

"I said, 'Gee that looks awful familiar,'" Dean recalled.

He fetched out his notebook with some 150 photocopies of National Archives records that he made about 20 years ago. "Lo and behold, I had a copy of this," he said.

In fact, he had eight copies of Frankford Arsenal documents being offered on eBay. On Sept. 25 Dean called the Archives' inspector general's office, and the response was immediate: investigator Kelly Maltagliati and an associate drove out to meet with Dean that afternoon.

Maltagliati bought a money order for Jim to send to the seller. She also checked with the Archives' branch where the Frankford Arsenal documents are kept. Since the papers were filed in chronological order, staffs were quickly able to determine that the ones on eBay were missing.

The seller was also quickly identified. Dean said that as an intern, the suspect had worked with the Frankford Arsenal documents. He reportedly took from 150 to 160 of them, mostly related to the Civil War.

"I was pissed when I found out this guy had done this," Dean said. "They weren't his documents. And though they may have been little-used over the years, they helped to tell the story of what was going on to fight the war for the Union."

Brachfeld, the inspector general, expressed delight with the theft discovery and investigation. He is working to expand a program that he conceived called Operation Historic Protector. But his office is "woefully understaffed." "We need help," Brachfeld said. He wants to "deputize" the public to be "citizen-sentinels," on the lookout for stolen archival materials.

"People ask me how much is stolen [from the National Archives]," said Brachfeld. "I have to tell them I have no idea. We have billions of records," most of them not inventoried item by item. "I don't know how much has been removed. I don't know how many people are taking from us.

"It used to be that when you stole a document, you had to go to a brick-and-mortar place to sell it. With the Internet, stolen documents can be sold rapidly. Someone can come to the Archives and steal a presidential pardon with Abraham Lincoln's signature on it and sell it for $15,000 to $20,000," he said.

"This is what I believe is happening to us, because there's money to be made. I'm committed to stopping people from stealing from the Archives."

Brachfeld pointed to the case two years ago when researcher Howard Harner pleaded guilty to stealing 100 Civil War-era related documents from the Archives and was sentenced to two years in prison and two years' probation. It was another well-known Gettysburg historian, Wayne Motts, who first spotted the stolen documents.

As with Motts, Brachfeld said, "I'm going to make sure Dean is recognized. We want this to spread. We want people who identify these stolen documents to be honored."

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