France to try light-fingered US historians

25th November 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 24 (AFP) - A French court is to try two US citizens over the theft of important historical documents -- including the treaty of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's surrender in 1814 -- that were smuggled out of national archives between 1974 and 1988.

PARIS, Nov 24 (AFP) - A French court is to try two US citizens over the theft of important historical documents -- including the treaty of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's surrender in 1814 -- that were smuggled out of national archives between 1974 and 1988.

John William Rooney, a 74-year-old former history professor, and Marshall Lawrence Pierce, 44, are to be judged on charges of receiving stolen goods in the case, which could be heard as early as next year, court officials in Paris said.

It was unlikely, however, that either would be present for the trial.

Both were convicted in their home country in 2002 of US customs violations related to the illegal importation of the stolen documents -- resulting in a 1,000-dollar fine for Rooney and a 10,000-dollar fine for Pierce -- and US authorities have ignored an official French request for international legal assistance.

The French case against the men does not directly address the matter of the thefts because of a statute of limitations for that crime.

The case came to light in 1996 when the curator of France's National Archives opened a Sotheby's catalogue and discovered the impending sale of the Treaty of Fontainebleau, a priceless text signed by Napoleon on April 11, 1814 in which he gave up his empire and accepted exile on the island of Elba. The seller was Pierce.

After a little research, the curator found that the document was registered as belonging to the National Archives and should have been on its shelves.

The US Federal Bureau of Investigation, alerted by legal action started by France, ordered the withdrawal of the item from auction.

Further research by France revealed that dozens of other historical documents were missing from its National Archives, as well as from its army archives -- all of them consulted by Rooney.

The Treaty of Fontainebleau and many of the other recovered documents (including 30 letters from Louis XVIII before he took over from Napoleon to become king, with excisions made to remove the National Archives stamp) were returned to France by the United States in 2002.

Several dozen documents, however, remain missing, all of them checked out by Rooney, on the basis of his academic credentials.

One of the top officials at the French National Archives, Pascal Even, said that, while thefts from the institution have rarely been of the magnitude seen in the Rooney-Pierce case, they do happen.

"You must realise that it's not possible to be immediately aware of a theft given the volume of documents kept, especially at the National Archives. The size is such that we simply can't post an officer over every researcher's shoulder," he said.

Nevertheless, reinforced security has been implemented since 1990, with improved verifications of returned documents, systematic stamping of pages and patrols by officers in the reading rooms, he said.

Documents dealing with Napoleon or Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI, were especially prized by genuine researchers and thieves alike, Even said.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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