When Paul Brachfeld took over as inspector general of the National Archives, guardian of the country's most beloved treasures, he discovered the American people were being stolen blind.
The Wright brothers' 1903 Flying Machine patent application? Gone.
A copy of the Dec. 8, 1941, "Day of Infamy" speech autographed by Franklin D. Roosevelt and tied with a purple ribbon? Gone.
Target maps of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, war telegrams written by Abraham Lincoln, and a scabbard and belt given to Harry S. Truman? Gone, gone and gone.
Citizens of a democracy must have access to their history, Brachfeld understood. But what kind of country leaves its attic door open, allowing its past to slip away? His solution: Assemble a team of national treasure hunters.
They are two earnest federal agents and a bookish historian dutifully scouring Civil War collector shows, dealer inventories and the Internet for bits of Americana that wind up on an eBay auction block.
It is mission impossible by any measure; the National Archives keeps watch over 10 billion federal, congressional and presidential records. The most famous - the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights - are enshrined in the magnificent granite headquarters blocks from the White House. But they are a sliver of the nation's important stuff. Now, the Archival Recovery Team, as the treasure hunters are formally known, is asking the American people to help find what rightfully belongs to them. They published a pamphlet on how to recognize a historical federal document, and who to call if you find one. The Wright brothers' patent - lost or stolen in the 1980s, no one knows for sure - was May's featured missing item on the National Archives' Facebook page.
"We have taken theft out of the shadows," Brachfeld said, recalling the days when embarrassing losses were kept secret.
"We want people to know we live, we exist. If it's gone, we want it back."
Much has changed since Brachfeld, who came out of the Secret Service's internal affairs, took the job a decade ago and was alarmed by brazen thefts, some by trusted archives staff.
In 2001, Shaun Aubitz, in charge of preparing exhibits of the Philadelphia holdings, took virtually all of the collection's presidential pardons and the deed to the hillside home of Robert E. Lee, whose yard became Arlington National Cemetery. A dealer Aubitz tried to sell to became suspicious and reported him. When Brachfeld looked Aubitz in the eye and asked, "Did you take more than we'll ever know?" Aubitz only winked.
A few years later, a buyer shopping on eBay spotted Civil War documents he had seen in Washington's archives collection and alerted authorities. A history buff named Howard Harner confessed to smuggling more than 100 of them out of the archives' research room in his clothes over six years.
The easiest course would be to lock it all away. But the National Archives prides itself on balancing public access with historic preservation, inviting American citizens "to see for themselves the workings of the federal government."