Friday, November 8, 2013

The Theft and Recovery of The Lone Ranger

The worst kind of news any devoted fan of nostalgic pop culture could hear is the theft of archival documents from a public library... especially when the archival materials impairs the valuable and necessary research and documentation of such classics as The Lone Ranger. But that is exactly what happened in the summer of 2013, when a long-time Detroit resident masterminded the unlawful theft of archival historical documents and attempted to sell them on the internet.

Because of the rising incidence of library theft and mutilation of library materials -- most likely caused by the recent economic decline -- public libraries have been suffering serious losses of books and other property. Radio research has taken a massive step up the evolution scale as a result of the internet (provided researchers use the internet as a tool for research, not as a reference). Archival materials in libraries have been making the transfer to digital format as a means of preservation (provided the backups are stored off-site, else that loses the point of "preservation"). But there are still hundreds of thousands (potentially millions) of items that have never been digitally scanned and are still susceptible to theft.

Earle Graser contract for sale
In late June 2013, Hake's Americana and Collectibles Auctions in York, Pennsylvania, officially launched the sale of the "WXYZ Archives," offering boxes of vintage collectibles ranging from The Green Hornet, Challenge of the Yukon and The Lone Ranger. Included among the lot were employment contracts signed by the actual staff of WXYZ (Brace Beemer, Earle Graser, etc.), glossy photographs, promotional premiums, unpublished manuscripts, newspaper comic strips and more. The weekly SCOOP newsletter announced the "WXYZ Archive" and naturally, this caught my attention. I was aware of the George W. Trendle Archive, the Brace Beemer Archive, the Fran Striker Archive, the Raymond Meurer Archive, and other collections housed at public and university libraries, and private collections of family relatives. But what exactly is the WXYZ Archive and why did they have three factual errors wrong in their write-up? Turns out a resident of Detroit, Michigan, consigned his private collection to the auction house in the hopes of making a profit. But the collection was not his...

The auction caught the eye of a number of collectors, including a friend of mine in Brooklyn, New York, Alex, who called me over the phone to inquire about The Green Hornet comic strips (reprinted on my blog HERE). They were for sale and he wanted to know the estimated value. I provided Alex and exact details of why the comic strip never went to print, how many rough sketches were made, the estimated value and other details that were not provided on Hake's auction site. Since only two were made and I know where the two reside, what puzzled me is where this third one originated. Even more puzzling was a number of other collectibles that had two similarities -- they contained autographs of George W. Trendle or "To George W. Trendle" and all of them were among the inventory list in the George W. Trendle Archive, housed at the Detroit Public Library.

The Green Hornet newspaper comic strip
A few years ago, Terry Salomonson, Chris Holm and myself had photocopied eighty to ninety percent of the documents, letters, correspondence, inter office memos, contracts, financial papers, photographs and other materials related to The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet housed in the George W. Trendle papers at the Burton Collection of the Detroit Public Library. For researchers like myself, photocopying the materials and filing them away for future ease is extremely beneficial. What can take four days copying 20,000 sheets of paper can take six months organizing, analyzing and typing into a book manuscript. Sitting in the reading room and typing information directly into a computer is only feasible when the amount of material does not exceed 40 to 50 sheets of paper per day. 

From a researcher's end, the copy policies at libraries vary and researchers often contact the libraries in advance regarding copy limits, fees, advance permissions, etc. This helps plan and map out a research schedule. (Or as I often say, research entails legwork -- not consulting prior published reference guides and internet websites.) Personally, I have a damn-the-cost attitude when it comes to research, choosing the more expensive route, knowing in the short few hours I have at a library I can go home with more material than I can process in the short time reviewing the same papers at the library. (This is generally why more than half the books I wrote cost me more than $12,000 in research expenses alone.) Having conducted research at more than 100 libraries in the past decade, I can state that my favorite are those with low copy fees (10 cents vs. 25 cents) and no copy limits. (The Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the Lincoln Center for Performing Arts at the New York Public Library has the worst policy anywhere -- their policies and staff do more to handicap your research then help.)

Researchers are responsible for the accuracy of the descriptions of the items sold on auction houses and auction houses make an effort to contact those researchers to ensure their customers are not being misled as to the validity of the item.

Reviewing the items for sale on Hake's auction (link cane be found HERE), a number of them caught my attention. Ink blots, coffee stains, torn corners, carbon copy blemishes, rusted paperclips and other signs can individually brand any archival document. It was those same tell-tale signs that caught my eye. After examining the items for auction and comparing the photographs to the copies in my files, you can imagine my surprise when the blemishes matched  the items being offered on Hake's. Could the items being sold on the web site be the same housed at the library in Detroit? A phone call to Hake's in late July did not confirm my suspicions and the general consensus was that the items were the property of the consignor and therefore the auctions would conclude as scheduled. When I asked an official at Hake's what the policy and procedure is regarding stolen items consigned to the company, I was told "no comment." My next option was to contact the library. After all, the items were probably theirs and they should be notified. After taking down the necessary information, including an e-mail documenting photographic proof, the library staff began an investigation. A police report was promptly filed out with patrol officers, who turned it over to detectives.

John Todd salary contract
Over a period of weeks following, photocopies of the archival documents in my files were scanned and sent to the library at their request; some of the scans were forwarded to detectives in York, Pennsylvania. The staff at Hake's were cooperative with the library and the detectives, even providing the name of the consignor to the library. The library staff began investigating and documenting every visit the library patron made, including every box and file number he reviewed, matching every item being sold on Hake's. A search of the perpetrator's apartment found nothing so we can only hope that all of the stolen items were recovered and not sold prior to this discovery. (Ironically, the perpetrator is quoted on the internet (twice) as a historian and as a preserver of the arts.)

On August 15, the suspect was arrested and charged with larceny from a building. He confessed that all of the material was in fact stolen. He has since been released but not yet sentenced. Hake's has returned everything that was in the auction and will return the remaining materials that they received from this person as soon as they photograph and catalog the items for their own records.

The library has since taken the precaution of installing lockers. Researchers are allowed only note-taking items when consulting the Burton manuscripts. All bags, coats, hats, briefcases, handbags, folders, books, newspapers and other belongings must be stored in the locker. Security cameras have been installed throughout the entire reading room, covering every square inch of the room. 

One of the stolen items, autographed to Trendle.
The perpetrator cleared Hake's of any wrongdoing. It should be noted that the internet has granted auction houses such as Heritage and Hake's vast market potential with a virtually unlimited number of buyers as opposed to a brick and mortar building. High-valued items that are too valuable for eBay's marketplace can be found on these type of auction sites. For researchers, these websites offer the occasional treasure such as the existence of a promotional poster unheard of prior, a rare collectible or prototype. Private archives from family relatives grant researchers temporary research potential during the auction tenure, when family relatives were impossible to track down or such collections were not known to exist. (Some theorize the dispersement of archival documents also makes research more of a challenge because the buyers often remain anonymous.) Hake's, like any auction house, provides a contract to every person wanting to sell their valuables and among the clauses is a statement from the consignor attesting to the ownership of the items. The auction houses can only assume the consignor is honest.

This story is not a common one. Theft like this does not happen every day. It is simply an isolated, quickly discovered and remedied incident. But there can be no doubts that many thefts have occurred from other libraries across the country. At an archive last year, a business contract signed by Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall had been discovered missing. Thankfully, a carbon copy of the original contract was still in the collection. Without the carbon copy, the financial records and terms of the contract would have been unknown to historians. In the case of the George W. Trendle Archive, imagine if the stolen items had gone unnoticed and sold to private collectors. Writeups documenting various facets of The Lone Ranger would have gone undocumented. (It has been proven in the past that most people who buy archival items from online auctions have personal agendas and do not cooperate with serious-minded researchers.) 

For researchers hoping to document "the complete story," and fans who enjoy reading such documented findings, with libraries doing their absolute best with security, with auction houses and libraries cooperating to ensure the safe return of archival materials, why are people constantly choosing greed over historical preservation? What can libraries do to ensure that the materials are safe from future raids, and what will they do to provide guidance to similar libraries? 

This story should never deter any parties from donating collections to public or university libraries. No matter what they do with the collection (including storing it in their attic), the threat of fire, water or theft is always a roll of the dice. No matter what security measures are placed, someone will always defy Darwin's theory of evolution by attempting to steal valuable, archival materials from libraries. Stricter policies, procedures and punishments ensure stronger security of the archival documents. But at what cost to the researcher?