It is depressing to think about the amount of historical knowledge lost to theft. Libraries and museums face continuous problems with security. Libraries are by nature friendly and trusting places – letting you check out books to take home and read. But there are people who will take advantage of that generosity. Now this theft actually took place before the receipt of the donation occurred, the idea is still the same.
James Roth’s article in Prologue, Reclaiming Pieces of Camelot, discusses problems with the Kennedy collection. Evelyn Lincoln, a former secretary of John F. Kennedy, was suspected of “misappropriating” documents related to JFK and through a long effort by NARA, the JFK library, the Kennedy family and the Department of Justice, these items were returned to their rightful institutions. Lincoln was entrusted with gathering up Kennedy’s papers in 1963 for the family to go through to decide what would be donated and what would be kept, but Lincoln turned out not to be a trustworthy choice:
…rather than turning over all of these materials to President Kennedy's family and the National Archives, Lincoln appeared to have kept many of these items and eventually given them away or sold them.
As early as 1964, the Kennedy family noticed problems in the papers Lincoln had turned over to them, but it was not until 1998 that the case was brought to the limelight. An auction of Kennedy material was announced, some of it that the National Archives and the JFK Library knew belonged to them. The Kennedy children also stepped forward with claims to some of materials at this time as well. In a long process of documentation and legal issues, a solution was finally found in 2005:
In the spring of 2004, library staff were permitted to review the entire White collection and selected all items that were deemed to belong to either the library or the family. After a year of negotiation, a final settlement was reached by all three parties in the summer of 2005. The library and Caroline Kennedy obtained the items they claimed and provided the White estate with a release of all of the other items that they had reviewed.
The article discusses what some of these Kennedy artifacts are. I’ll let you explore what was found, but I’ll share two with you so you can see the scope and importance of these papers. First to the Pre-Presidential Papers:
A significant addition to John F. Kennedy's Pre-Presidential Papers is a group of 11 folders relating to the 1960 Democratic National Convention. Before their recovery, the collection of Kennedy's papers at the library lacked material from the convention. The Democratic National Convention materials were collected and generated by Senator Kennedy and his staff before, during, and immediately following the convention in Los Angeles, California.
Next to the Presidential Papers on the Cuban Missile Crisis:
In 2003, Kennedy Library Director Deborah Leff received a telephone call from NARA General Counsel Gary M. Stern informing her that a NARA researcher had seen a map of Cuba for sale on the web for $750,000. The map was advertised as The Cuban Missile Crisis Map, "the ultimate JFK relic, originally acquired from the noted Kennedy collector Robert White" with the claim that this was "the most important Kennedy manuscript extant in private hands." White had long sold the map, and it had changed hands numerous times, ending up in the hands of a collector named Ralph McElvenny. The director convened a team of archivists at the library to work with the general counsel to investigate the background of the document.
Lincoln’s theft was unknown for years and after discovery took ten years to sort out. Allen Weinstein, the Archivist of the US, had this to say at the announcement of the settlement:
I am very pleased that these important documents and artifacts are finally being returned to the Kennedy Library where they belong. It was the intent of the Kennedy family that the American people should have the fullest account of the Kennedy administration, and these materials are essential in telling that story.
This article is two things. First, it is the story of the documents themselves and what they tell us about President Kennedy, which is important in itself. Second, it is a story that illustrates the amount of cultural thefts going on in our country. While this story as a happy ending, many do not. Remember to watch out for your cultural artifacts!