Former volunteer admits theft from History Museum collection - The Buffalo News

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Former volunteer admits theft from History Museum collection

In the pantheon of industrialists and philanthropists who made Buffalo a great city, A. Conger Goodyear holds a special spot.

Born here, he gained wealth and stature during the early 1900s as a railroad and lumber executive and avid art collector who owned works by Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. When Goodyear died, his personal letters went to the Buffalo History Museum.

On Thursday, a former museum volunteer admitted to stealing some of Goodyear's letters and, with the help of an alias, trying to sell them to a collector in Manhattan.

As a result of his fraud conviction, Buffalo's Daniel Jude Witek, 54, will face a recommended sentence of up to 10 months in prison.

"You can't allow this to happen," said Michael DiGiacomo, an assistant U.S. attorney, of Witek's thefts. "Buffalo has a lot of history and heritage and we have to protect that."

Witek was arrested in 2013 after an internationally-known collector in Manhattan emailed the History Museum, inquiring if important Goodyear documents had gone missing.

A few days earlier, the collector had offered $2,750 for five Goodyear letters and postcards being offered by a man who claimed to have several more.

By most accounts, the collector's email that day was the first hint that valuable letters from the Buffalo tycoon-turned-philanthropist might have been stolen from the museum’s archives.

During an interview with The Buffalo News in 2015, more than a year after he was first charged, Witek described himself as an art history and museum collections expert.

Museum officials called him a con man.

At the time, Witek acknowledged trying to sell the Goodyear letters to the collector but said the letters were his to sell. He said the museum, because of poor oversight and record-keeping, would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise.

He also claimed some of the letters were handed down from his grandfather and that he bought the rest from a New York City gallery.

Accused in court papers of using a fake name, Walter Payne, while trying to sell the Goodyear letters, Witek told the FBI he used a false moniker because he was selling cheaper items and wanted to preserve his reputation as a high-end consultant and collector.

“I wasn’t trying to get away with anything,” he said in 2015. “I wasn’t pretending to be the Count of Monte Cristo.”

Witek, according to investigators, was able to steal the letters because of the trust he gained as a volunteer who claimed he had his own Goodyear collection.

During Thursday's court appearance, defense attorney Patrick J. Brown asked U.S. District Judge William M. Skretny to release Witek until his sentencing in November, a request the judge granted.

"I just want this to be fully satisfied and be done with," Witek, who has spent several months in custody, told Skretny.

The History Museum's thefts came at a time when museums and libraries across the world were confronting embarrassing revelations about missing letters, documents and pieces of art.

About that same time, the Boston Public Library found itself trying to explain how two works of art, valued at $630,000, were discovered missing in April and were eventually found 80 feet from where they were supposed to be. The library president resigned after an audit accused the library of failing to maintain a complete inventory of prized possessions and putting its special collections at risk.

The Goodyear papers in Buffalo are valued because of the owner's reputation as an industrialist and philanthropist. Even more noteworthy, perhaps, was that Goodyear at one point served as president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Goodyear died in 1964.

Witek's guily plea is the result of an FBI and Secret Service investigation and a prosecution by DiGiacomo and Assistant U.S. Attorney Jonathan P. Cantil.

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