Monday, June 23, 2008

A Theft Case Even More Bizarre Than Usual

I've waited to post about the Eugene Zollman theft case for a while simply because when I first heard about it, it didn't make any sense to me. Still doesn't, but I've sat on it long enough. On 19 May of this year, 70-year old Eugene Zollman of La Porte, IN, was charged in federal court with theft of major artwork for stealing more than $15,000 worth of Jefferson Davis documents from the Transylvania University library ... in 1994.

Zollman, a Davis impersonator and collector, had visited the Transy library in April and May of 1994, according to visitor logs (more about which later). In November 2007, Rice University's Lynda Crist, editor of The Papers of Jefferson Davis, noticed certain Davis documents which she knew were supposed to be in the Transylvania library for sale on the website of Stanford, CT-based Alexander Autographs.

I'll let Travis take it from there: "A series of phone calls between the cops and feds and dealers led to an investigation that has led to this moderately happy ending. He’s been indicted in Kentucky and Indiana and hopefully the 70 year old will spend some time in prison. The investigation also revealed that these are not the first documents Zollman stole from Transylvania and auctioned off" [according to news reports, "police determined that Zollman had also auctioned Jefferson Davis documents that belonged to Transylvania through a New Orleans auction house in 1997, the affidavit says. But those documents have not been found.]

And there's a twist. Alexander Autographs president Basil Panagopulos told the Lexington Herald-Leader that Transy wanted to keep word of the thefts under wraps, and only went to the police when he "insisted that he needed a report from law enforcement that described the items as stolen in order to take further action." Transy officials deny this, saying they immediately contacted police when they were made aware of the documents' reemergence.

Panagopulos said in a later statement/press release that, at first, "The university's position was that they hoped that the documents could be simply returned, with no city police involvement nor any mention of 'Jefferson Davis' due to the controversial nature of Davis' stand during the Civil War [quite an odd reason, if you ask me]. Panagopulos pressed the issue, insisting that it was the duty of the institution to report the crime and prosecute any thief in order to not only reclaim any additional material he might have, but, in a broader sense, to protect all other vulnerable repositories of historic archives." He maintains that the university's failure to provide adequate specific information regarding the thefts meant that he legally still had to offer them for sale, which he did with the understanding that he would be the highest bidder in order to be able to return the stolen items to Transylvania. He said that he hoped to be able to return the items to the university by 3 June.

Everett Wilkie commented in an Ex-Libris post when this news broke, and his views are well worth sharing here: "From a security point of view, I would like to comment that Transy was able to produce researcher circulation records going back 26 years, which obviously proved crucial. RBMS/ALA guidelines recommend keeping such records permanently, for obvious reasons. At one point in a Guidelines revision several years ago, the RBMS Security Committee at a hearing was pressured by ACRL to drop that recommendation. I merely point out the apparent folly of discarding such records--ever." Indeed.

I haven't seen any updates on this case for a while, but it certainly is a strange one.