Buffalo Man Arrested for Theft of Letters from Museum Collection
- by Michael Stillman
The Buffalo History Museum (from their website).
A breach of trust has been charged by the FBI in a case of stolen historical letters from the Buffalo, New York, area. The technical charge is mail fraud, which is why the FBI is involved, but the underlying crime alleged is the taking of material from the Buffalo History Museum, and possibly other institutions in the area.
Charged in the crime is Daniel J. Witek, 50 years old of Buffalo, who was associated with the History Museum and several libraries as a volunteer. According to the complaint, around May 13, Witek, using the name “Walter Payne,” contacted David Lowenherz of Lion Heart Autographs in New York City, saying he had some items to sell. Witek allegedly faxed copies of numerous letters and postcards to Lowenherz. Witek said they had been passed down through his family. Lowenherz agreed to purchase five of the documents for a price of $2,750. Witek shipped those items to him, along with photocopies of additional letters.
Evidently, when Lowenherz was able to examine the material more closely he became suspicious. On May 21, he sent an email to Cynthia Van Ness, Director of Library and Archives at the Buffalo History Museum, with a list of 42 items Witek was offering for sale. He wanted to make sure they were his to sell. Many of the items pertained to Anson Conger Goodyear, a Buffalo area industrialist who became the first President of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Goodyear died in 1964. The Buffalo History Museum has a collection of his papers.
Staff at the museum immediately went to work researching their archives. Eventually, they determined that 30 of the 42 documents Witek was offering were missing from their A. Conger Goodyear Papers Collection. Melissa Brown, Executive Director of the Buffalo History Museum, relayed their preliminary findings to Lowenherz. Based on the complaint, it appears that Witek must have learned of or suspected there would be communications as he arrived at the museum and asked to speak to Brown. Brown knew him from his volunteer activities, which included work in the Goodyear Collection. Sign in records show Witek and a friend accessed the collection numerous times. Witek allegedly told Brown and Van Ness repeatedly that he had been contacted by a dealer in New York because he was selling copies of letters, but that he would never take anything from the museum. Witek warned them that they might be contacted by the dealer. He also said there was not a complete listing of the collection so it would be impossible to know whether something was missing.
Later that evening, Witek sent a fax to Lowenherz demanding payment, and the next day left several voice messages making the same demands. However, by then Lowenherz had heard from the museum that Witek had no authority to sell the documents. The complaint ends here, but we will presume that Lowenherz never made any payments and the next people Witek heard from were the FBI.
No claims have been made about other material, but the complaint states that Witek was also “associated with” the Swan Library in Albion, The Barker Free Library, the Middleport Free Library, and the Rare Book Collection at the Central Branch of the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library.
The charges alleged carry a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine. Witek was released on personal recognizance, but a condition of his release is that he not visit the Buffalo Historical Museum or any other public or private establishment possessing rare books.
The FBI has requested that anyone in the area who believes rare books, letters or artwork are missing from their collection contact them at 716-856-7800.