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Mystery at the museum: Inside the hunt for Truman’s treasures

Posted: 9:46 AM, May 06, 2021
Updated: 2021-05-06 23:28:28-04
turman heist cover image.jpg

Setting the Scene

More than four decades ago, the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum found itself at the center of a heist.

The thieves got away with national treasures that were never seen again.

That’s something the museum’s staff and the FBI hope will change soon. 

The 41 Action News I-Team reopened the case file in the hunt for Truman’s treasures.

It’s a case as cold as the snow that fell on March 24, 1978. 

On that day, thieves broke into the museum and took off with a collection of swords and daggers valued at the time at $1 million.

Courtesy: Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

“They had embedded diamonds and rubies and sapphires, a number of precious stones in their hilts and in their scabbards,” said Clay Bauske, the museum curator.

The items were priceless in terms of history. All were given to President Truman by foreign heads of state.

“These were gifts to the United States, and they’ve been stolen from the United States,” Bauske said.

One sword was a present from Shah of Iran Resa Pahlavi.

Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Amir Saud presented two swords and a dagger to President Truman in person.

President Harry S. Truman (left) holds the Legion of Merit Medal, Degree of Commander, awarded to His Royal Highness Crown Prince Saud Al-Saud of Saudi Arabia (right) on Feb. 18, 1947. Courtesy: Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

Later, another gift came directly from the king himself.

“Truman had sent his personal doctor, Wallace Graham, to Saudi Arabia to treat the king … and in gratitude he gave Truman that last dagger,” Bauske said.

The swords and daggers had a place of prominence at the entrance of the museum, where they were displayed for 20 years.

Courtesy: Harry S. Truman Library & Museum

The Heist

The 41 Action News I-Team pulled police records that have faded with time but still offer clues in the case.

According to the Independence Police Department’s original report, the strange events of March 24, 1978 began at 6:20 a.m.

On the north side of the building, there was one security guard named Thomas Williams on duty. A maintenance man named Neil Morris was at the guard station as well.

RELATED | Can you find President Harry Truman’s stolen treasures?

The two men saw a black Oldsmobile parked across the street. Williams told police he saw a woman exit the car, walk around it, then get back in and drive away.

“Some of the speculation is that [she] might have been a lookout,” Bauske said.

The woman may have been there to confirm the guard was on the opposite side of the building from the main entrance.

Minutes later, Williams heard an alarm go off. That signaled the start of the heist, which lasted just 45 seconds.

Courtesy: Independence Police Department

The thieves smashed a glass window by the front door of the museum. Once inside, they broke open the display case where the swords and daggers were kept.

Courtesy: Independence Police Department

The police report shows Williams ran down a long corridor from the north to the south side of the library. When he got to the double doors leading to the exhibit, Williams “heard a chain rattling and could tell there was someone at the door.”

The thieves had locked the doors from the other side.

“That gave them a few extra seconds to pilfer things out of the case and then go back out the window,” Bauske said.

The Aftermath

The thieves didn’t leave any fingerprints behind.

However, police found two sets of footprints in the melted snow.

Courtesy: Independence Police Department

Not much is known about the suspects, but the FBI says they were likely aware of the library’s security procedures.

The mystery of the missing swords and daggers continues 43 years later.

Could they have been melted down, the precious stones removed and sold? Or was the break-in much more sophisticated?

Writing in 1978, Kansas City Star reporter James Kindall floated one potential theory.

Courtesy: Kansas City Star

READ | Kindall's full article about the heist

“Somewhere in the United States or possibly abroad, a collector, clad in a smoking jacket and sipping an expensive liqueur, sits in a vault deep in the bowels of his mansion and smiles. On a wall in front of him is the object of his satisfaction. It is an exclusive array of three swords and two daggers worth nearly $1 million,” Kindall wrote.

Renewed Focus

Now, there’s a new focus on cracking the case.

The FBI announced a reward of up to $10,000 for information leading to the recovery of the items.

“We’re hoping that with this investigation, with the reemphasis and the announcement of this award, that someone somewhere knows something and is willing to come forward,” Bridget Patton, a spokesperson for the FBI in Kansas City, said.

The FBI’s Art Crime Team was created to investigate cases like this one. Since its establishment in 2004, the team of special agents has recovered over 20,000 pieces of stolen art valued at more than $900 million. In addition, more than 100 individuals were convicted, according to the FBI.

PODCAST | FBI seeks help solving President Harry S. Truman Library heist cold case

The Truman swords and daggers are listed on the National Stolen Art File, an online database maintained by the FBI that catalogues stolen art and cultural property.

“We want to see them returned. We want to see them back on display in the presidential library so that everyone can enjoy them,” Patton said.

Leadership at the museum shares that hope as they get ready to reopen its doors.

“They would have a very prominent place of display, but in a much more secure fashion,” Bauske said.

The heist of the swords and daggers wasn’t the first break in or attempt at the Truman Library & Museum.

According to reporting by the Kansas City Star, there was a break-in attempt on Feb. 3, 1978. The would-be intruders tried to drill through a lock on a door next to the window that was later broken on March 24. However, a guard scared off the suspects. It is not known if that attempt is tied to the sword heist.

Thieves were successful in 1962 when they broke in and stole a collection of coins that were on display. Donors from around the country rallied to replace the coins, which can be found at the Federal Reserve Bank in Kansas City.