Thieves don’t often bust into U.S. presidential libraries.
But when they do, as demonstrated in 1978 in Independence, they can make off with treasured artifacts in 45 seconds.
Think swords. President Harry S. Truman collected several of them from Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Saud and the Shah of Iran.
The swords, scabbards and daggers filled a display case in the main lobby of the Truman Library and Museum until the morning when security guard Thomas Williams heard glass shattering.
Never miss a local story.
About 6:30 a.m. on March 24, 1978, two burglars broke the glass at the library’s front doors facing U.S. 24, setting off alarms. Williams was stationed at the opposite side of the building, observing a woman who had stepped out of a late-model Oldsmobile to pace around the parking lot. Police later guessed she was playing a diversionary role.
The thieves were able to reach the sword display in a few steps. Williams heard more glass breaking as he rushed up the archives corridor. By the time he reached the lobby the intruders had vanished, leaving only a pair of footprints in fresh-fallen snow.
“This whole thing took less than a minute,” said museum curator Clay Bauske in a recent interview.
No leads surfaced even as the case was revisited in a 2014 broadcast of “Brad Meltzer’s Lost History” on the H2 cable network. Host Meltzer asked: “Where on earth are Harry Truman’s swords?” But Truman never considered the gifts to belong to him; they belonged to the public, which is why he made sure to display them in a prominent place in the museum.
The National Archives has a website featuring the lost artifacts, which had a total value approaching $1 million and were described as follows:
▪ Dagger, scabbard and belt: Given to Truman by Prince Saud, the dagger has a gold hilt, steel blade and is adorned with nine diamonds on its grip. The gold scabbard has four diamonds and the belt is woven with gold thread.
▪ Presentation sword: Thirty-eight inches long, it has gold grips and four decorative diamonds. Its scabbard is gold and black leather with 15 diamonds.
▪ Silver and steel sword with scabbard: A gift of the Shah.
▪ Dagger with four half-carat diamonds surrounding a 2.5-carat emerald in the pommel. The lower grip has 15 small diamonds around a three-carat ruby.
FBI spokeswoman Bridget Patton said it’s possible some of the pieces are still intact, “maybe in the possession of people who thought they bought these legitimately.”
If so, the owners should contact the bureau’s Kansas City office, 816-512-8200, or file an electronic tip at tips.fbi.gov.
For its part, the Truman museum learned a lesson about displaying priceless artifacts near the main entrance.
“We’ve stopped doing that,” said curator Bauske.
Crime site: Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, Independence.
Circumstances of the case: Before the library opened on March 24, 1978, two burglars smashed their way into the main lobby and stole several daggers, swords and scabbards presented by foreign leaders as gifts to Truman.
Suspect information: No witnesses to their crime, but the thieves may have known about the library’s security procedures. A month earlier, a pair of men who appeared to be in their 20s — one carrying a walkie-talkie, the other a drill — fled from the entrance doors when a guard approached.
Anyone with information is asked to call: FBI’s Kansas City office at 816-512-8200.