The personal papers of Anson Conger Goodyear, the Buffalo-born lumber and railroad tycoon turned famed art collector, are a prized possession for any collector.
Yale and Stanford universities and the Museum of Modern Art are among those fortunate enough to own some of Goodyear’s historic documents, manuscripts and scrapbooks.
So is the Buffalo History Museum, which found itself the victim Tuesday of an alleged fraud involving a volunteer accused of stealing part of its Goodyear collection.
The volunteer, Daniel J. Witek of Buffalo, also is accused of trying to sell the papers – there may be as many as 42 letters and postcards missing from the museum – to a prominent dealer of historic documents in New York City.
“As a caretaker of documents, we expect such custodians to exhibit the utmost care, not just with a museum’s documents but with what is really part of the community’s legacy,” said U.S. Attorney William J. Hochul Jr.
Prosecutors say Witek, who reportedly had an association with other libraries and museums in Western New York, used the name “Walter Payne” when he contacted Lion Heart Autographs, a well-known dealer of historic documents.
Witek, according to court papers, informed Lion Heart President David Lowenherz that he had several Goodyear letters that had been passed down from his family and he was willing to sell.
Prosecutors say the two men agreed on a price of $2,500 for five letters and postcards, and Witek subsequently sent the documents to Lowenherz.
Lowenherz waited to pay the man he knew as Walter Payne and, in the meantime, emailed the Buffalo History Museum a list of the 42 letters and postcards Payne was offering to sell him.
“If not for him calling the History Museum, I don’t think any of this would have come to light,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael DiGiacomo said of Lowenherz.
Lowenherz declined to comment when contacted by The Buffalo News, except to confirm that the offer came from a person calling himself Walter Payne and that he ultimately alerted the museum.
After hearing from Lowenherz, the History Museum began an inventory of its Goodyear collection and soon discovered more than 30 missing items. It also contacted the FBI.
“The criminal investigation is ongoing, and we’re trying to determine if there are other victims,” said Maureen Dempsey, spokeswoman for the FBI office in Buffalo.
Melissa Brown, the museum’s executive director, declined to comment Tuesday but, in court papers, indicated she knew Witek as a volunteer who went by the name Daniel Mountbatten-Witeck.
She also told the FBI, according to court papers, that Witek at one point told her that he had been contacted by a New York City dealer about documents he was selling, but that he insisted he would never take anything from the museum.
Witek, who has been released on his own recognizance, is charged with mail fraud and faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
In a statement announcing Witek’s arrest, Hochul made it clear investigators are looking for more information about Witek and the possibility of other thefts.
Court papers indicate Witek, 50, had an association with the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, the Swan Library in Albion and the Barker Free Library, but employees at all three libraries said Witek was never a volunteer there.
“We don’t know how far Mr. Witek’s reach goes,” said DiGiacomo. “There may be other private or public collectors who had contact with him.” He said anyone with information should contact the FBI at 856-7800.
Goodyear’s papers are valued because of his stature during the early 1900s as an industrialist, philanthropist and art collector. Born in Buffalo in 1877, Goodyear served as president of both the Great Southern Lumber Company in Louisiana and the New Orleans Great Northern Railroad Company. Even more noteworthy, perhaps, he was an avid art collector with works by Paul Cezanne, Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin. He also served at one point as president of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. He died in 1964.