A lavish gala was to kick off a display of Nancy Reagan's ball gowns Thursday night, but visitors to the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library near Simi Valley were buzzing more about the landmark's record-keeping problems -- lapses so severe that National Archives officials are unable to say whether gifts to the Reagans have been stolen or are lost inside the massive museum complex.
The red carpet laid at the museum's main entrance in the afternoon trailed past a bust of Reagan and was later to be trod by a host of Hollywood celebrities and big-name fashion designers. An aide to Nancy Reagan, who was scheduled to attend, said the former first lady would have no comment on the criticism leveled at the library Wednesday in an audit by the National Archives' inspector general.
But Frederick J. Ryan Jr., president of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation's board of directors, said Nancy Reagan expressed "surprise and disappointment" when he spoke with her Thursday morning about the audit. Ryan, a former Reagan aide, said the allegations of sloppy management practices at the library reflect badly on the National Archives, which runs the Reagan complex and 11 other presidential libraries.
"We're disappointed that the archives as an institution has failed here," said Ryan, who heads Allbritton Communications, a Washington D.C.-based media company. The Reagan foundation raises funds for the hilltop library and museum but does not control its operations, he added.
While pointing out problems at other presidential libraries, the inspector general's audit dealt the most severe criticism on the Reagan library. After an employee was fired for suspected theft earlier this year, poor record-keeping kept officials from determining for sure what it was that might have been stolen, according to the inspector general.
No criminal investigation has been requested, according to local law enforcement officials and a spokesman for the FBI.
The biggest unknowns center around the library's vast collection of "artifacts" -- objects as humble as bumper stickers and as freighted with history as a lacquered Russian samovar given to the Reagans by former Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev.
The library also displays gifts from ordinary people, some playing to Reagan's penchant for such Western gear as heavy belt buckles, while others -- such as a brooch that spells out "Just Say No" in rhinestones -- were directed to the first lady.
In a statement Thursday, U.S. Archivist Allen Weinstein acknowledged that only five of the 12 presidential libraries have fully inventoried their collections of artifacts.
The Reagan library, he said, has upgraded its inventory software, is hiring additional staff and is taking other measures recommended by the inspector general. As at all of the libraries, the gift collection is housed in a vault equipped with security cameras, he noted.
Exactly how many gifts are stored at the Reagan library is unknown. While 100,000 is "an educated estimate," Weinstein said, a precise figure has been elusive because of inaccurate tallies from the White House as crates of items were transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration.
The audit said only 20,000 items could be accounted for at the library. On Thursday, Paul Brachfield, the archives' inspector general, said some news coverage wrongly suggested that the remainder are missing.
"The vast majority may very well be located within the library's storage facilities," he said in a statement. "Some of these items may be missing or stolen, or none of these items may be missing or stolen," he wrote, noting that neither possibility can yet be determined because of the library's "significant breakdown of internal controls."
All the presidential libraries are saddled from time to time with an administration's inaccurate accounting of its artifacts, said Elaine Didier, director of the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library in Grand Rapids, Mich.
"We sometimes get fragmentary records and incomplete information," she said. "One of the challenges we all have is that when gifts come in from the White House, they're not tagged, organized, labeled and inventoried as well as they might be."
The handwriting of presidential aides is sometimes illegible -- especially when archivists, who deal with documents, or curators, who organize artifacts, try to decipher it decades later, Didier said. And cataloging small items in a cascade of memorabilia -- paperweights, fountain pens, key chains -- can be difficult.
"It's amazing how similar items can be," Didier said. "How do you distinguish one identical campaign button from the next?"
Didier said the Ford library -- much smaller than the Reagan library -- fared well in the audit, but that all of the institutions are perennially underfunded by Congress.
That rang true with researchers who have spent countless hours in the Reagan archives, poring through boxes of documents from the eight years of his presidency.
Reagan biographer Lou Cannon said library employees ably assisted him earlier this year but "I had the impression that they were kind of overextended." Cannon said another presidential library recently commissioned him to interview a significant historic figure but had to cancel the assignment for lack of funds.
Attracting as many as 500,000 visitors a year, the Reagan library drew the usual crowd Thursday -- plus a bevy of news crews interested in artifact-bookkeeping and workers preparing for the gala.
Some of the tourists expressed concern over how the former first lady would take the news. Many of those gazing at exhibits on topics as diverse as the Cold War and belt buckles -- about 200 were on display -- wondered about the apparent disorganization behind the scenes.
Bernice Strull of Westlake Village was on hand with her 7-year-old grandson Cooper, who was clutching a U.S. Constitution he had bought in the gift shop.
"It's amazing that this has happened," Strull said. "I feel bad because these things are here for the entire world to see and share."
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein and Greg Krikorian contributed to this report.