J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Sunday, January 31, 2016

Ledgers, Laches, and the Law

The New York Law Journal ran an interesting report earlier this month on a legal decision involving a ledger from the Pennsylvania Gazette print shop.

That ledger was kept by printer David Hall from 1759 to 1766. Hall published the newspaper as the younger partner of Benjamin Franklin, who spent nearly all those years in London.

The book was donated to the New York Public Library in 1929 and remained there for about sixty years. Sometime between 1988 and 1991, the library has said, it vanished from the shelves. But the library didn’t report the ledger as having been stolen. It’s not even clear when the institution recognized that it was gone.

In 2014 a woman named Margaret Tanchuck brought the ledger and some antique Bibles to a book appraiser, saying she had recently found them in her late father’s jewelry shop. The appraiser spotted some questionable details, namely “New York Public Library call letters on the spines of certain books and one with a library ownership stamp.” So it contacted the library, which immediately made a legal claim on the items and alerted prosecutors.

Tanchuck refused to simply return the library books, which were valued at well over $2 million, the Franklin & Hall ledger being the most valuable. Last year, she asked a court to declare that the books were the property of her parents’ estate.

Tanchuck claimed that her father first mentioned having valuable books in his store around 1990, presumably these. Under a legal doctrine called laches, her attorneys argued, the New York Public Library forfeited its claim on those items since it didn’t pursue them diligently within three years. The library’s attorneys argued instead that the three-year clock should start when it became aware that it was missing its stuff.

Last year a judge stated that the applicable law meant that the library’s claim should start “when the true owner makes demand for return of the chattel and the person in possession of the chattel refuses to return it”—i.e., in 2014. However, he acknowledged, the legal situation is different if a stolen object is “in the possession of the thief”; in that case, “the statute of limitations runs from the time of the theft, even if the property owner was unaware of the theft at the time that it occurred.”

Thus, Tanchuck’s claim had more legal support if the court assumed that her father stole those books than if it assumed that he came into possession of them in some unknown and possibly legal way. Not that she was explicitly making that claim.

The judge decided that, although he had to assume the late jeweler knew he had stolen books, he wouldn’t assume the man had been involved in stealing them. Newsday quoted his ruling:
In view of 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 to title, it would be inequitable to permit Tanchuck to assert the statute of limitations.
This month the judge affirmed that ruling. The case remains in court and the books, it appears, in government hands.


Douglas B. said...

The court's opinion, in case anyone is curious, is at: http://decisions.courts.state.ny.us/10JD/Nassau/decisions/INDEX/INDEX_new/BUCARIA/2015AUG/602132-15.pdf

floatingcopy said...

Just curious whether Ms. Tanchuck has filed suit against the appraiser, or whether she has any legal standing to do so.

J. L. Bell said...

She has not, to my knowledge, nor does she appear to have a reason to. After the firm spotted the signs of the New York Public Library's ownership, Tanchuck consented to having them contact the library. The library then took legal steps—both civil and criminal—to press her to return the books. She asked the state court to declare that the library had no standing to do those things because of the laches doctrine. Once the legal standing of both sides is clear, there will probably be a quick negotiated settlement.