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Accused of thefts from History Museum, former volunteer shifts blame

On a May morning two years ago, David Lowenherz emailed the Buffalo History Museum, curious about whether important documents from its A. Conger Goodyear collection had gone missing.

A few days earlier, Lowenherz, an internationally known autograph collector in Manhattan, had offered to buy five Goodyear letters and postcards from a man who claimed he had 40 more for sale.

By most accounts, Lowenherz’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.

And it wasn’t the first, or even second time, important documents and artifacts reportedly went missing from the Nottingham Terrace institution.

Daniel Jude Witek, a former volunteer at the museum, is the man accused of stealing the Goodyear letters. But in a twist, Witek has become the accuser.

“They run the place, securitywise, like a lemonade stand,” says Witek, who is charged with one felony count of mail fraud. “This is an institution that has had massive problems with theft, inventory control and security going back 50 years.”

Witek’s allegations, which museum supporters view as self-serving and desperate, are part of a legal defense that suggests the venerable institution has its own disturbing history – a record of thefts and missing artifacts dating back nearly six decades.

In the early 1980s, a government audit of the museum found a Shakespeare print, valuable stamp and other items missing from its archives. The audit also noted the absence of a comprehensive inventory of the museum’s million-piece collection.

Fifteen years earlier, it was a missing letter from Abraham Lincoln and documents signed by George Washington and James Madison that grabbed headlines. Police said the culprit was the curator of manuscripts.

Museum officials would not comment on Witek’s credibility or motivation, but they were quick to defend the institution’s record of safeguarding its treasures.

“We are all at risk of dealing with dishonest people,” said Kenneth Friedman, a Buffalo attorney and longtime member of the museum’s board of managers.

For a lot of museum backers, the Goodyear theft was an unfortunate aberration and should not reflect poorly on one of the region’s oldest and most important cultural attractions. They see the missing letters and documents as one of the few negative consequences of the museum’s growing emphasis on opening its doors and attracting more visitors.

“It is somewhat the cost of accessibility,” said a former museum board member who spoke on the condition he not be named. “We want to get more people in the building.”

Sprinkled throughout his court papers, Witek’s allegations come at a time when museums and libraries across the world are confronting embarrassing revelations about missing letters, documents and pieces of art.

Just last month, the Boston Public Library found itself trying to explain how two valuable 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.

Around that same time in June, the FBI, which now has a special art theft unit, announced the return of two antique books stolen from the National Library of Sweden in the 1990s. And a few months before that, the agency announced the conviction of a man involved in the theft and sale of a book stolen from Boston’s historic Old South Church.

Law enforcement officials say stolen art is difficult to trace and, often, the chances of getting it back are small.

“They know it’s been a sieve for 50 years,” Witek said of the Buffalo History Museum.

In court papers challenging the government’s case against him, Witek claims the Goodyear letters he was trying to sell are truly his, and that the museum, because of poor oversight and record-keeping, would be hard-pressed to prove otherwise.

Goodyear’s papers are valued because of his stature during the early 1900s as an industrialist, philanthropist and art collector. Born in Buffalo in 1877, Goodyear served as president of both the Great Southern Lumber Co. in Louisiana and the New Orleans Great Northern Railroad Co.

Even more noteworthy, perhaps, he was an avid art collector with works by Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. He also served at one point as president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He died in 1964.

To hear Witek talk, there are documents and letters the museum owns that are now missing, including more than 100 Goodyear books inscribed by notables such as aviator Charles Lindbergh. He also claims the museum lacks an accurate and comprehensive inventory, even now, decades after the last theft.

Citing the ongoing prosecution of Witek, federal prosecutors declined to comment on his allegations but it was the government that early on in the case acknowledged that, without Lowenherz’s email to Cynthia Van Ness, director of archives, it’s possible the alleged thefts might never have come to light.

Witek acknowledges trying to sell the Goodyear letters to Lowenherz but says the letters were his to sell. He claims some of them were handed down from his grandfather and the rest he bought 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. “I wasn’t pretending to be the Count of Monte Cristo.”

Even though museum supporters won’t talk publicly about Witek, they are quick to suggest privately that he’s nothing but a con man desperate for an alibi, an explanation of why some of the Goodyear letters were traced back to him. They also note that Patrick J. Brown, who declined to comment for this article, is his third defense lawyer.

Witek, a self-described art history and museum collections expert, says his consulting career began when he was a young man from Buffalo and brought him in contact with some of America’s wealthiest individuals.

Chrisa Katsampes, a retired curatorial assistant at Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, says she has known Witek for 14 years and has traveled with him to museums in Buffalo, Rochester, Elmira and New York City.

“In all of those places, people knew him,” Katsampes said. “And I’ve seen them impressed by his knowledge and expertise.”

Investigators think Witek’s thefts were rooted in the trust he gained as a volunteer who claimed he had his own Goodyear collection. They know a lot of art thefts involve insiders and that even the best security measures can’t protect an institution from all thieves.

And yet, improving security is exactly what the museum has been doing. With financial help from the city, the museum embarked on a $1 million capital improvement plan, started long before Witek was charged two years ago, that included new security cameras, exterior and interior lighting and a beefed-up screening process for people seeking historic documents.

The improvements added to a security process, Friedman says, that had been reviewed and approved as part of the museum’s ongoing national accreditation process.

“If people want reasonable access to these materials,” he said, “it’s a huge challenge to keep dishonest people from stealing them.”

Witek’s case is before U.S. Magistrate Judge H. Kenneth Schroeder.