Rare Book Monthly

Articles - February - 2016 Issue

The New York Public Library Wins Round One in Battle to Recover Stolen Books

F12fdf53-f3fb-4f20-af82-ce490eaaf2c4

The New York Public Library recently survived a round in its attempt to recover several books almost certainly stolen from it decades ago. The current possessor's attempt to have the library's claim for the books dismissed on statute of limitations grounds was denied by the New York State Supreme Court on January 8. The legal justification for the dismissal was bizarre, though it is hard to argue with the fairness of the result.

 

Last spring, Margaret Tanchuck approached Doyle New York, the auction house, with some impressive books. She was interested in an appraisal and possibly a sale. There were seven old bibles, but even more important was a manuscript workbook from Benjamin Franklin's printing house from 1759-1776. It could be worth seven figures. There were also some obvious problems with the books. They contained markings of the New York Public Library. One had an ownership stamp of the library inside, others the library's call numbers on the spine. Doyle quickly contacted the New York Public, Mrs. Tanchuck says with her permission, to inquire whether these items had indeed been sold or legally deaccessioned.

 

It didn't take long for the New York Public Library to say "no way." They had not been sold or otherwise intentionally released. However, the library was not aware that they were missing. In looking through their records, they concluded that the items departed the library sometime between 1988-1991, but no one there had ever noticed. Mrs. Tanchuck did not shed much light on how they exited the library either, only confirming the timing and describing how they came into her possession.

 

Mrs. Tanchuck inherited the books from her father, John Caggiano. Mr. Caggiano operated a jewelry store in Glen Head, New York, but also traded in other valuable items. According to Mrs. Tanchuck, sometime around 1990, her father told her he had some valuable books in his store, and mentioned them a few more times over the years, but never disclosed how he came to have them. Mr. Caggiano died in 2009.

 

One can only speculate how Mr. Caggiano came to possess these books. Obviously, he did not buy them from the library, and the odds that they were accidentally thrown away are less than slim-to-none. There is nothing in Mr. Caggiano's background that would suggest he was a thief, and the fact that he never attempted to remove the library markings or make any money from them indicates he was not in the business of stealing books. However, it does not appear unreasonable to think he was aware that not all was on the up and up based on his never attempting to sell the books, display them, or tell his family much about them. He appears to have treated the books as if they were "hot."

 

Based on his business, and the way he treated the books, we might guess that he purchased them for a ridiculously low price from someone else who knew they were stolen, either the thief or someone who obtained them from the thief. We have no evidence to support this guess, but it seems the most logical explanation to us. We might also note that Mrs. Tanchuck may have had serious doubts about the legitimacy of her father's possessions as she did not list them among the inventory of her father's estate presented to the Surrogate's Court in 2013.

 

The New York Public Library demanded Mrs. Tanchuck return the books. She declined. The library said she demanded a large sum of money to give them back. The library contacted the U. S. Attorney who seized the books. This lawsuit, in which the library prevailed, was an attempt by Mrs. Tanchuck to get a declaratory judgment that the library's claim was barred by the stature of limitations. That statute provides that an action to recover property must be commenced within three years of it being missing. Clearly, these books left the possession of the library way more than three years ago.

 

However, one exception established in the case law prevented the stature of limitations from running for many years, and herein lies what is truly bizarre about the law in this case. The case law provides that if stolen property is in the hands of a good faith purchaser, the statute of limitations does not begin to run until the real owner demands the goods be returned, and the possessor refuses to return them. That did not happen until last year, and once the library realized the books were missing, they immediately made a demand for their return.

 

In other words, if Mr. Caggiano had stolen the books himself and kept his mouth shut, three years later they would have been his to keep. However, since he came upon them honestly (or, at least, there is no evidence that he did not), he does not get to keep them until three years after he has informed the owner he has them. The thief gets to keep the stolen merchandise, while the honest purchaser does not. The Supreme Court pointed out that "the Court of Appeals noted that it was 'seemingly anomalous,' for the cause of action to accrue earlier when the property was in possession of the thief, rather than a good faith purchaser for value. Nevertheless, the Court of Appeals has not changed the rule which applies in those circumstances." Seemingly anomalous, indeed! It is ridiculous.

 

The court does go on to talk about "equitable principles" in their decision, and you get the feeling they might have found another way to come to the same result if Mrs. Tanchuck had claimed that her father said he stole the books himself. Any other result would be ridiculous, and courts usually don't like to reach stupid conclusions. The law may be an ass, but judges don't much like to look like ones themselves. So, this case will go on, and if I were a betting man, I would put my money on the New York Public Library to get those books back when all is said and done.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <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>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Caius Julius Hyginus, <i>Poeticon Astronomicon,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1482. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Giovanni Botero, <i>Le Relationi Universali... divise in Sette Parti</i>, Venice, 1618. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> <i>L'Escole des Filles</i>, likely third edition of the first work of pornographic fiction in French, 1676. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Illuminated Book of Hours in Latin on vellum, Flanders, early 16th century. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes Regiomontanus, <i>Calendarium,</i> Venice, 1485. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Pedro de Medina, <i>Libro d[e] gra[n]dezas y cosas memorables de España,</i> Alcalá de Henares, 1566. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:<br>Early Printed, Medical, Scientific & Travel Books</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b><br>Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> Salamanca, circa 1496-97. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Andrés Serrano, <i>Los Siete Principes de los Ángeles, válidos de Rey del Cielo,</i> Spain, 1707. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 8:</b> Johannes de Sacrobosco, <i>Sphaera mundi,</i> first illustrated edition, Venice, 1478. $15,000 to $20,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> A Rare 3-rotor German Enigma I Enciphering Machine. $70,000 to $90,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Important collection of correspondence between Werner Heisenberg and Bruno Rossi. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Walt Whitman Autograph manuscript containing his thoughts on death. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> David Roberts. <i>Holy Land</i>. Six volumes. 1842-1849. First edition. $15,000 to $25,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Extensive collection of Ray Bradbury's primary works, most signed or inscribed. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Peter Force. Declaration of Independence. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Steinbeck. <i>Grapes of Wrath</i>. A fine copy of the first edition. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Lewis & Clark. <i>Travels to the Source of the Missouri River</i>... First English edition, extra-illustrated. 1814. $10,000 to 15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> Manuscript document signed by Nuno de Guzman relating to Hernan Cortes, 1528. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, Feb. 11:</b> “Nos los inquisidores..." The first book in English printed West of the Mississippi. [1787]. $5,000 to $8,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions