Ar­ti­fact col­lec­tor gives to spy mu­seum

Orlando Sentinel - - LOCAL & STATE - By Deb Riech­mann

WASHINGTON — H. Keith Mel­ton spent 40 years look­ing for the ice-climbing ax used in the bloody as­sas­si­na­tion of Rus­sian revo­lu­tion­ary Leon Trot­sky. It had been sit­ting un­der a bed in Mex­ico City for decades.

Much eas­ier was ac­quir­ing a man­gled, bas­ket­ball-size chunk of Gary Pow­ers’ U2 spy plane shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. It was a gift from a Soviet of­fi­cial.

The items are part of the world’s largest pri­vate col­lec­tion of spy ar­ti­facts. Mel­ton, a wealthy busi­ness­man from Boca Ra­ton, is do­nat­ing all of it to the In­ter­na­tional Spy Mu­seum in Washington.

The mu­seum an­nounced Wed­nes­day that more than 5,000 items Mel­ton amassed dur­ing four decades of criss­cross­ing the globe will be the cor­ner­stone of a new, larger fa­cil­ity slated to open next year in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal.

It is a “mag­nif­i­cent ges­ture,” said Peter Earnest, the mu­seum’s found­ing di­rec­tor, cred­it­ing Mel­ton’s do­na­tion with tripling the mu­seum’s cur­rent hold­ings of roughly 2,000 items.

There’s a vic­tory flag that CIA-backed Cuban ex­iles never flew af­ter the botched Bay of Pigs in­va­sion in 1960.

There’s a 13-foot-long World War II spy sub­ma­rine known as the “Sleep­ing Beauty.”

And there are es­cape-and-eva­sion de­vices, codes and ci­pher ma­chines along with the dis­guises, se­cret writ­ings, lis­ten­ing de­vices, clan­des­tine ra­dios, spy cam­eras and uni­forms and clothes of the most fa­mous oper­a­tives ever em­ployed by the CIA, KGB, FBI and Bri­tain’s MI6.

“It took nine peo­ple 17 days to pack the col­lec­tion in an assem­bly line,” Mel­ton told The Associated Press in an in­ter­view. “I had to breathe deeply sev­eral times as I saw all of the gad­gets be­ing packed up and leav­ing.”

Mel­ton, a found­ing mem­ber of the mu­seum’s board, said pro­fes­sional ap­prais­ers es­ti­mated his col­lec­tion at more than $20 mil­lion. He said he’s paid “fool­ish” prices for some items and ac­quired things that he later learned were fakes.

“To me, the goal is not to see how many wid­gets I can get. It’s what can I learn. I love re­search. Ev­ery ar­ti­fact I have is part of a de­tec­tive search,” he said. “You travel into strange places in the world and some­times pay too much money, but you end up fas­ci­nated with the va­ri­ety of things that you see.”

Mel­ton grad­u­ated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1966 and went to Vietnam dur­ing the war. He trained as an en­gi­neer and con­sid­ered work­ing in in­tel­li­gence, be­fore opt­ing for a ca­reer in busi­ness. He made his money own­ing and op­er­at­ing McDon­ald’s restau­rants. At one time he was the largest McDon­ald’s fran­chise owner in the coun­try.

Dab­bling in the spy world was a hobby — an ex­pen­sive one — that sort of got out of con­trol.

Mel­ton placed ads around the world seek­ing spy ar­ti­cles. He was in Ger­many in 1989 af­ter the Ber­lin Wall came down and trav­eled to Moscow in early 1992 af­ter the Soviet Union col­lapsed. In both in­stances, he made con­tacts that helped him find items from the de­funct East Ger­man min­istry for state se­cu­rity and the Soviet KGB. Among them:

A World War II-era electro­mechan­i­cal ci­pher ma­chine with Ja­panese char­ac­ters that the Ger­mans pro­duced to share with their Asian ally. The war ended be­fore the Enigma ma­chine, which looks like a spe­cial type­writer in a wooden box, could be sent to Ja­pan. A U.S. sol­dier found a stack of the ma­chines in a boat in France and took one home with him.

“He kept it in his closet for 50 years,” Mel­ton said.

An­other item is a sil­ver dol­lar con­ceal­ing what ap­peared to be a tiny straight pin. It was one of five sui­cide nee­dles filled with shell­fish toxin that U.S. in­tel­li­gence ser­vices made around the 1960s so Amer­i­can spies could kill them­selves on an op­er­a­tion gone awry.

A print­ing plate was used by Nazi in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers to print bo­gus Bri­tish currency dur­ing the war. They rounded up about 100 peo­ple, in­clud­ing mas­ter Jewish forg­ers, in con­cen­tra­tion camps and told them if they could pro­duce un­de­tectable Bri­tish notes, they wouldn’t be killed. Af­ter be­ing re­leased, the forg­ers dumped the weighty crates of fake currency, print­ing plates and presses into a lake as they fled to Al­lied lines.

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