Thousands of historical documents have disappeared over the years from the National Archives—the patent for the Wright Brothers’ airplane, target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Civil War telegrams written by Abraham Lincoln, a copy of FDR’s “Day of Infamy” speech and NASA photographs from space.
Leading the team of investigators seeking to recover America’s stolen historical treasures is Kelly Maltagliati, a special agent with the Office of Inspector General at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
Maltagliati was instrumental in establishing NARA’s investigatory Archival Recovery Team eight years ago, and every year since has made a huge impact by locating countless missing historical records and helping secure criminal convictions against transgressors. In addition, she has enhanced security measures at the National Archives, its presidential libraries and regional centers nationwide.
“Kelly has been the champion of the program,” said Ross Weiland, a former deputy inspector general who worked with Maltagliati. “She recognized the need. Her investigative style is just to outwork, outlast and out-hustle everyone else, and that is what she has done with this program.”
As head of the recovery program, Maltagliati has set up sting operations, engaged in old-fashioned police work, monitored web sites and online auctions like eBay, visited memorabilia and Civil War shows, used social media to reach the public, established a hotline and built a network of “sentinels” throughout the nation to be on the look-out for stolen documents.
There have been a number of notable successes.
Earlier this year, a well-known presidential memorabilia collector pleaded guilty to stealing thousands of original documents from major archival repositories, including the National Archives and the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, N.Y. The theft included seven copies of President Roosevelt’s speeches that contained edits, handwritten additions and his signature.
Maltagliati and her team worked with the FBI, helped prepare the search warrants, and identified and recovered the material stolen from the presidential library.
In another case, a contact alerted Maltagliati regarding the sale of numerous historical recordings on eBay, a tip that led to the arrest and 2011 guilty plea by a former longtime National Archives employee who admitted stealing a thousand audio recordings ranging from radio episodes of Dragnet and Gunsmoke to a 1937 radio interview with Babe Ruth.
Following an investigation by her office, a long-time researcher confessed last year to altering a presidential pardon signed by Lincoln that is part of the permanent records at the National Archives. In addition, Matagliati’s office recently recovered important Watergate documents, including sealed grand jury testimony that had been inadvertently donated by former special prosecutor Leon Jaworski to a university library.
Maltagliati also was involved in the recovery of an 1863 letter from Lincoln to Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase regarding a corruption case involving the director of the San Francisco Mint; a letter from former President Harry S. Truman to his wife, Bess, dated Dec. 5, 1941; passport photographs of John Wayne, Pearl Bailey, Diana Ross and Joan Crawford; and an 1861 letter from L.A. Armistead tendering his resignation from the Army to join the Confederacy and fight against his friends.
David Ferriero, the archivist of the United States, said Maltagliati brings “passion to her work” and helps “ensure that the documents we are responsible for are around forever.”
“It’s not just about protecting pieces of paper, it’s about protecting our history,” Ferriero said.
Debra Wall, the deputy archivist, said Maltagliati understands the importance of the documents, has developed great respect from the staff of the National Archives, and has taken a proactive approach by making contacts outside the institution among researchers, collectors and dealers who work with historical documents every day.
“She is getting the American people their history back. These are priceless, one-of a-kind documents,” said Wall. “We really believe the archives are essential to a democracy, and we take our mission seriously. Kelly has taken it a step further by going out and finding these missing documents.”
Maltagliati said she has been involved in cases where just one document or as many as 3,000 were recovered.
When she first arrived on the scene, Maltagliati said, officials at the National Archives “didn’t want to talk about stolen material because they were embarrassed.” In addition, those who collect and sell historical documents and other materials were suspicious and not always helpful. She said her office has helped change the culture at the Archives, while establishing relationships with many of those who trade in historical materials and now realize that collaboration can help them avoid trouble.
Maltagliati said she wants to be a “good public steward,” and finds it “fulfilling” to recover stolen documents and ensure continued public access to these records.
“I can remember the first time I held a pardon in my hand signed by Abraham Lincoln. I was in the treasure vault, and I just felt chills,” she said.