Rare Book Monthly

Articles - May - 2013 Issue

Can Secondhand Dealer Legislation Ensnare Even the Collector?

Hillbill

Proposed California law relating to secondhand dealers.

The devil is in the details. California, a leader in legislating things, has long tried to regulate secondhand trade. It is not that they are looking to complicate the world for small sellers who trade in used goods. The problem relates to stolen merchandise. The way one sells such merchandise, or using the proper term, “fence” such merchandise, is generally through the secondhand market, a place where people are frequently willing to buy goods for an unusually low price, no questions asked. One category of goods frequently associated with the trade in stolen merchandise is books. Legislators are aware that libraries provide a ready product source for those who like to sell without first buying their books.

Earlier legislation was mostly focused on pawnbrokers. In another era, thieves generally would bring what they stole to a pawnshop, the most notable seller of secondhand merchandise. However, it is no longer so easy. Flea markets, thrifts shops, eBay and the like have become viable markets for fencing goods. Undoubtedly, law enforcement (and consumers) often see things for sale in such venues and wonder how can they be so cheap. The law probably knows very well. The problem is devising tools that can catch the guilty, while leaving the innocent alone. And that is where the devil arises in the details.

A Los Angeles book collector, Richard Hopp, sent us a copy of a letter (it's actually more like a legal brief) he sent to California Senator Jerry Hill, sponsor of a new round of legislation. Mr. Hopp is particularly concerned about what constitutes a “secondhand dealer.” This is not clearly spelled out. He is concerned about such vendors as garage sales, church and library sales. Will they be ensnared in the licensing, customer tracking, and various other requirements the law would impose on secondhand sellers? Or how about a simple purchaser? Could he be tangled in the definition of a “secondhand seller.”

That last case may sound absurd to you, but Mr. Hopp was himself hauled before a court in Los Angeles in one of the more bizarre of cases involving a city secondhand book dealer code. The city argued successfully in court that Mr. Hopp was an unlicensed book dealer despite their having no evidence that he had ever sold, or attempted to sell, a book. He was a collector who the city determined was a book dealer because he bought books. That conclusion could be enough to strike fear in the heart of every book collector and librarian in Los Angeles, but Mr. Hopp fought city hall and in time he won.

In the Los Angeles case, the law provided that anyone engaged in “the business of buying, selling, exchanging or otherwise dealing in secondhand books...” constituted a book dealer. Richard Hopp was not engaged in the business of “buying and selling,” but he was engaged in “buying or selling.” Since the “or” in the statute only requires one or the other, and he was a buyer, he was deemed a book dealer.

Mr. Hopp conducted his buying in an atypical way for a collector – advertising to buy books and setting up a “buying booth” at shows. The city evidently concluded that someone who bought in this manner must be buying for resale, not for collecting. The problem was that they had absolutely no evidence he ever sold any books, and Mr. Hopp explained that this was the way he filled his collection, giving away or discarding books purchased in bulk he did not want.

Ultimately, Richard Hopp prevailed in court on appeal. The higher court did not focus on the buying and/or selling issue. Instead, it focused on the word “business” in the statute. The court concluded that a business requires some sort of service to the public, and so why he was certainly “buying” books, he was not engaged in the book “business.” Therefore he was not a book dealer.

It's no wonder Richard Hopp would be a bit gun shy about new secondhand dealer legislation, particularly laws such as this that could make book collecting a “criminal profiteering activity.” He suggests making the definition of a secondhand dealer to be “conjunctive and comprehensible and no longer disjunctive and ambiguous.” In other words, for starters, define a secondhand dealer as one who engages in buying and selling used merchandise, not buying or selling it. He concludes, “This proposed change is to protect the collector in his/her hobby, low income person, the disadvantaged, occasional seller, and bargain shopping public so as to no longer classify them as potential criminals. Amendment of the existing codes is needed to achieve their intended purpose, e.g., curtail the sale of stolen property to a 'fence', yet still allow a widow to buy a teapot.”

The problem that Senator Hill and others are trying to fix is a serious one. A readily available market for stolen goods encourages people to steal more. Collectors or buyers can make the situation worse by buying merchandise they have reason to believe is likely to be stolen. Perhaps buyers need to be regulated too, though it is certainly preferable to limit the burdens to those who make a business of trading in used merchandise. We will leave the fashioning of proper legal remedies to the legislators.

However, it is worth noting that this issue never would have arisen had Los Angeles officials applied even the minimum of common sense. They may have suspected that Mr. Hopp was engaged in a secondhand business, but convictions must be based on evidence, not suspicions. Since they had no evidence Mr. Hopp was violating any laws, they tried to twist the law to cover innocent behavior. So now, someone needs to find a way to write needed statutes not only to protect society from the criminal, but to protect the innocent from society, in the form of overreaching law enforcement. No wonder our statutes become such a jumble of incomprehensible legalese.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Franklin H. Brown, <i>State Sovereignty, National Union,</i> Chicago, 1860. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Thomas Paine, <i>The American Crisis,</i> Fishkill, NY, December 1776. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b><br>The Aitken Bible, Philadelphia, 1781. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francisco Loubayssin de Lamarca, probable first edition of the first novel set in the Spanish New World, Paris, 1617. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Juan de la Anunciación, <i>Sermonario en lengua mexicana,</i> first edition, first book of sermons in Nahuatl, Mexico, 1577. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Maturino Gilberti, <i>Thesoro spiritual en lengua de Mechuacá,</i> first edition, Mexico, 1558. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Commission of William O. Stoddard as secretary to the president, signed by Lincoln, Washington, 1861. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> <i>Clay and Frelinghuysen,</i> flag banner, circa 1844. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Daguerreotype of a man believed to be Frederick Granger Williams Smith, son of Joseph Smith, circa late 1850s. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> John C. Wolfe, <i>Portrait of Abraham Lincoln,</i> oil on board in period wooden frame, circa 1860s. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Francis W. Winton, manuscript on pow-wows with indigenous Canadians, 1881. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Sep 27:</b> Family letters from two young daguerreotype artists, 1826-79. $10,000 to $15,000.
  • <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Published Half Plate Ambrotype of a North Carolina Confederate Officer. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two 19th Century Books Pertaining to Canada's Red River Settlement. $400 to $800
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Two Books With Fore-Edge Paintings of British Architectual Landmarks. $400 to $600
    <b>Leland Little: Important Fall Auction. September 22, 2018</b>
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Andy Warhol (American, 1928-1987), "Torte a la Dobosch" from <i>Wild Raspberries</i>. $1,000 to $3,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Keith Haring (American, 1958-1990), <i>Pop Shop II,</i> One Plate screenprint in colors, on wove paper, 1998. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Leland Little, Sep. 22:</b> Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1756-1827), Twenty-Two Prints from the <i>Tours of Dr. Syntax</i>. $500 to $1,000
  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>Aurora Australis.</i> Printed at the sign of 'The Penguins'; East Antarctica, 1908. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Shackleton, Ernest. <i>South Polar Times.</i> 1st edition, limited issue. from the library of Michael Barne. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> General Washington's <i>Proceedings of a General Court Martial... of Major General Lee.</i> Philiadelphia, 1778. 100 copies printed for Congress. BOUND WITH: ...Court Martial... of St Clair and ...Schuyler. $25,000 to $35,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>The Voice of the People.</i> Boston, 1754. Rare pamphlet on the Excise Tax. Nathaniel Sparhawk's copy. $4,000 to $6,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Autograph Letter Signed ("S.L. Clemens"), offering extensive hard-earned advice on writing, 5 pp, 1881. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> After Fra Egnazio Danti. <i>L'Ultime Parti not:e nel Indie Occid:ntli" [The last known parts of the Western Indies].</i> Painted Map of California, Western Mexico, and Japan. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Ptolemaeus, Claudius. <i>Geographie opus nouissima...</i> 1513. The most important edition of Ptolemy, containing the Admiral's Map. $250,000 to $350,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> De Arellano, Don Alonso. Manuscript, his <i>"Relación mui singular y circunstanciada... Capitán del Patax San Lucas,"</i> manuscript copy from the Sir Thomas Phillips collection. $50,000 to $80,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Purchas, Samuel. <i>Purchas his Pilgrimes.</i> First edition. With John Simth's engraved map of Virginia. $70,000 to $100,000
    <b>Bonhams: Exploration and Travel, Featuring Americana, Part I. September 25, 2018</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> Lewis, Meriwether. Contemporary manuscript true copy of his final power of attorney, 1809. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>A New Method of Macarony Making, as Practiced at Boston in North America.</i> Mezzotint. London, 1774. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Bonhams, Sep. 25:</b> <i>Scientific Base Ball Pitching: A Treatise on the Pitcher, Pitching, Origin and Philosophy of the Curve.</i> Chicago, 1897. $2,000 to $3,000

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions