January 20, 2016
Trial over stolen NYPL rare books moves forward
by Liam O’Brien
The case of a Nassau County woman accused by the New York Public Library of possessing stolen property is proceeding into the discovery phase, after her motion to dismiss failed to sway the court.
The property in question? Several very rare and valuable books, including a manuscript by Benjamin Franklin, all of which the NYPL claims were stolen decades ago from their collection, years before they made their way into the possession of the plaintiff’s late father.
When we previously covered this story in 2014, the books had been seized by order of a grand jury. Litigation proceedings began in the Nassau County Supreme Court, and Andrew Keshner reports on recent developments in the case for the New York Law Journal:
The New York Public Library’s claims on rare, centuries-old books that it says were stolen from it are not time-barred, a judge decided.
The ruling stems from a motion by Margaret Tanchuck, who asked Nassau County Supreme Court Justice Stephen Bucaria to declare her the rightful owner of books long-held in her family: a work book from Benjamin Franklin’s print shop and seven rare bibles published between 1672 and 1861.
Bucaria’s decision to reject Tanchuck’s motion to dismiss was based on when the library’s claim to the materials is legally allowed to expire, and to understand that, you have to delve into the very sexy and exciting mechanics of property claim law and equity.
So here’s the abridged version (the full version is here): Tanchuck states that the library’s claim began when the items were stolen, in the early 90s, while the library asserts that their claim begins when they were notified by Tanchuck’s appraiser at William Doyle Galleries, in July 2014. The library doesn’t dispute that they had no idea the books were missing for twenty years, but they argue that this shouldn’t matter.
With Tanchuck’s permission, the auction house contacted the library.
The library sent a letter to Doyle claiming it was the rightful owner.
A library official discussing the Franklin work book told Doyle “our rough estimation is that the item was somehow taken from the library between 1988 and 1991.”
The library said lawyers for Tanchuck met with the library’s in-house counsel and “demanded a substantial sum for return of the items.”
Tanchuck said the library during the same meeting “flexed its political muscle and threatened to deploy police and federal investigators if its demands for the contested items were not appeased.”
So cinematic! Since the statute of limitations for claiming the return of, or damages for, unreturned property is three years, it was in Tanchuck’s interest to successfully argue that the library was untimely in advancing its claim, and that the statute clock began ticking at the time of the theft.
While the court did affirm that this was correct, it wasn’t enough for the court to grant Tanchuck’s claim of untimeliness; this was largely due to “the value and cultural significance of the property, the library’s capacity as a public custodian, the strength of the library’s title, and the vague and unspecified nature of Tanchuck’s claim.” Ultimately, the court affirmed their decision, as well as asserted that thieves shouldn’t benefit from the statute of limitations.
The case will proceed, however, on the claim that the library dragged their feet (technically known as a “laches” claim), and discovery will cover “non-public information concerning Library holdings which ‘have gone missing, were stolen, or were otherwise removed without authorization'” as related to the disputed books.
Let’s hope that New York’s sordid tale of missing library holdings is a little more climactic than Boston’s.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.