Last week, Daniel J. Witek was sentenced for his role in the theft of several documents from the Buffalo History Museum, bringing the case to a close more than four years after the crime was carried out. In May 2013, Witek, of Buffalo, New York, was arrested and charged with mail fraud after he attempted to sell materials in his possession to autograph dealers in New York City and New Jersey. The documents were stolen from the Buffalo History Museum’s A. Conger Goodyear papers. Goodyear, a Buffalo native, was a member of the industrialist Goodyear family and was among the founders of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In the 2013 complaint, the US Attorney for the Western District of New York stated that Witek had been accused of stealing at least five historic documents from the Buffalo History Museum. According to another source from the time, it was closer to 40 documents. Witek then passed the documents off as his personal property and attempted to sell them to two dealers. One dealer was suspicious of the offer and contacted the Museum to confirm that the sale was not illicit. This contact alerted the Museum to the theft, leading to Witek’s arrest.
After the arraignment in 2013, not much news was made about the case for two years. Then, in September 2015, Witek was brought up on new charges of mail fraud and interstate transportation of stolen goods. In an interview with the Buffalo News earlier in 2015, Witek defended himself by pointing to the Museum’s past lost and missing items (this article contains a photo of Witek for reference).
Fast forward two years to this past July, when Witek pleaded guilty to one charge of mail fraud for stealing the Goodyear letters and attempting to sell them to dealers in New York and New Jersey. Four month later, on November 8, Witek was sentenced. While the maximum sentence for the mail fraud plea was 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, the recommended sentence was incarceration for up to 10 months, although prsecutors were hoping for something closer to a three-years prison term. The judge ultimately opted to hand down a sentence of six months time served, two years probation, and a fine of $2,100 in restitution.
Among the most important lessons from this case is that it was the autograph dealer who brought this crime to light. Had the dealer been less knowledgeable, less suspicious, or had less scrupulous, Witek’s theft may never have been brought to the attention of the Buffalo History Museum. The relationship between dealers and collectors, on the one hand, and archives, libraries, and museums, on the other, is extremely important if we are to combat crimes against objects of enduring cultural value.
A second lesson for cultural heritage institutions is to be vigilant with employees and volunteers. As was reported at the National Conference on Cultural Property Protection earlier this month, 80% of theft in museums is committed by staff or those with whom the staff has placed confidence, such as a volunteer like Witek. We can assume the the number is similarly high for archives and libraries.