Associated Press H. Keith Melton examines an Enigma Machine that was used in World War II to encode messages Wednesday. The machine is one of many items he is donating to the International Spy Museum.
Thursday, September 14, 2017 1:00 am
Spy memorabilia king gives museum a boost
DEB RIECHMANN | Associated Press
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, Florida, 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,” gushed Peter Earnest, the museum's founding director, crediting Melton's donation with tripling the museum's current holdings of about 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 spooks every employed by 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 this month. “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, at times, 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.