A History Buff Uncovers Thefts of American History Treasures
By ERIC KONIGSBERG
Published: January 29, 2008
Until two weeks ago, Joseph Romito, a history buff,
was not a person who trolled the Internet for artifacts
related to the statesman John C. Calhoun, a
19th-century vice president.
But on Jan. 17, he happened to type the name into
a search field on eBay, saw a listing for an obscure
handwritten letter signed by Calhoun in 1823, and
recalled having seen it somewhere else.
What's more, he had enough knowledge of
Calhouniana to turn to his own 25-volume
collection of Calhoun's correspondence to
verify his hunch.
Mr. Romito's index to the Calhoun volumes listed
the letter as the property of the New York State
Library. He alerted the library, and was told that
the matter was being looked into.
"I didn't know what was going to happen,"
Mr. Romito said. So he bid on the item himself.
"I knew I wasn't going to end up buying it --
I wasn't going to pay for it -- but I put in what
I thought was a very high bid to try and keep it
from going somewhere else. The government
can be slow."
Mr. Romito's discovery led quickly to a state
investigation, and on Monday resulted in charges
being filed against the would-be seller, Daniel D.
Lorello. Mr. Lorello, 54, has worked at the New
York State Archives in Albany for 29 years. The
state attorney general's office has charged him
with several criminal counts, including grand
larceny, criminal possession of stolen property,
and scheming to defraud.
In a handwritten confession that the authorities
obtained from Mr. Lorello on Thursday, he said
he had been illegally selling rare books and
documents from the state's collections since
2002. His thefts intensified last year, he wrote,
"because my daughter, Maria, unexpectedly
ran up a $10,000 credit card bill."
"I estimate that I've taken more than 300 or 400
items in 2007 alone," Mr. Lorello wrote. The
attorney general's office said he sold them on
eBay and at collectors' trade shows. Robin L.
Baker, a deputy attorney general, said at a news
conference that investigators had discovered
"more than a dozen boxes of stolen items" at
Mr. Lorello's home in Rensselaer. She said they
were believed to form the majority of the stolen
The government said that Mr. Lorello was an
archives and records specialist at the
Among the most valuable items he sold was
a "Davy Crockett's Almanack," which went
Mr. Romito, whom Attorney General Andrew M.
Cuomo called "the hero in this case," is a lawyer
in Richmond, Va., specializing in litigation and
estate planning. He earned a master's degree
in history at the University of Illinois, focusing
on the Middle Ages, he said during an interview,
"but I'm also interested in American history,
Southern history, and Calhoun in particular."
The eBay letter, dated Nov. 9, 1823, is
addressed to a Colonel Haine, who Mr. Romito
figured out was Charles Haine, a personal
secretary to DeWitt Clinton, a two-term governor
of New York. Over the course of four rather vague
pages heavy with insider-speak, Calhoun, Mr.
Romito deduced, is asking Haine to drum up
support for him in New York should he decide
to run for president against John Quincy Adams.
"Mr. Adams will fall without a blow," he predicts.
(A year later, Calhoun was elected vice president.)
The listing on eBay, by a seller who identified
himself as lld1863, described the document as
"a super letter with excellent content and one
that would make a great addition to any 19th-
century American political autograph collection."
He noted, "There are the usual mailing folds
present as well as overall age toning and minor
Last Tuesday, the day the auction was to end,
bidding for the letter stood at $274 before Mr.
Romito took matters in his own hands and
indicated that he was willing to go as high as
$1,777.77, should a bidding war break out.
At 8:55 p.m., with five minutes to go, a member
of the attorney general's office took up Mr.
Romito's tactics and began bidding for the
item -- only to be automatically outbid by
Mr. Romito. Finally, a bid of $1,802.77 stuck,
and the government was declared the winner.
A listing page on eBay shows that without the
bids of Mr. Romito and the government, the
highest offer was $795, by a bidder presumably
unaware of the document's complicated provenance.
Two days later, the seller gave his confession.
Mr. Lorello wrote that on the last day of the
auction, he realized that state archivists were
aware of the fraudulent listing, and he began
to sense that he was being outfoxed. "I first
became nervous after a conversation with
Kathleen Roe, my boss's boss. She asked me
if I knew who 'LLD' on eBay was. I knew that
it was me."
Mr. Cuomo said that the government was
continuing to piece together the value of
everything that Mr. Lorello had stolen. Mr.
Lorello noted in his confession that most of
what he stole was not particularly valuable
(some of his items sold for as little as $10).
Most of the artifacts were known among
dealers as trash, he wrote, although he used
a trashier word than trash.