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 Mar 10:</b> Francis Scott Key, <i>Star Spangled Banner,</i> first printing, c. 1814-16. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> William Sydney Porter, a.k.a. “O. Henry,” archive of drawings made to illustrate a lost mining memoir, c. 1883-84. $30,000 to $40,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> [Bay Psalm Book], printed for Hezekiah Usher of Boston, Cambridge, c. 1648-65. $50,000 to $75,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Noticia estraordinario,</i> probable first announcement in Mexico City of the fall of the Alamo, 1836. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Patrick Gass, first edition of earliest first-hand account of the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Pittsburgh, 1807. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Diploma from the Princeton Class of 1783, commencement attended by Washington & Continental Congress. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>Sprague Light Cavalry!</i> color-printed broadside, NY, 1863. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> <i>The Lincoln & Johnson Union Campaign Songster,</i> Philadelphia, 1864. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Lucy Parsons, labor organizer, albumen cabinet card, New York, 1886. $800 to $1,200.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Daniel L.F. Swift, journal as third mate on a Pacific Whaling voyage, 1848-1850. $3,000 to $4,0000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Mar 10:</b> Two photos of Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon, silver prints, 1901. $1,500 to $2,500.
  • <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Helvelius. Two Autograph Letters Signed to Francis Aston, Royal Society Secretary, noting his feud with Robert Hooke, 5 pp total, 1685. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Newton, Isaac. Autograph manuscript on God, 4 pp, c.1710, "In the beginning was the Word...."?$100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First edition, first issue. Untrimmed copy in contemporary boards. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Lincoln, Abraham. Signed photograph, beardless portrait with Civil War provenance. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> IMPEACHMENT. Original engrossed copy of the first Andrew Johnson impeachment resolution vote. $120,000 to $180,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Mucha, Alphonse. 11 original pencil drawings for?<i>Andelicek z Baroku,</i> "Litte Baroque Angel," Prague, 1929. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Einstein, Albert. Annotated Galley Proofs for <i>The Meaning of Relativity.</i> 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Silverstein, Shel. Original maquette for <i>The Giving Tree,</i> 34 original drawings. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Roth, Philip. Typed Manuscript with substantial autograph corrections for an unpublished sequel to <i>The Breast.</i> $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> Taupin, Bernie. Autograph Manuscript, the original draft of lyrics for Elton John's "Candle in the Wind," 2 pp, 1973. $100,000 to $150,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> HARVEY, WILLIAM. <i>De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animalibus Anatomica Exercitatio.</i> Padua: 1643. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Mar. 6:</b> CESALPINO, ANDREA. <i>Peripateticarum Quaestionum Libri Quinque.</i> Venice: 1571. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Leon TOLSTOÏ. <i>Anna Karenina.</i> Moscou, 1878. First and full edition of the Russian novel, in the author’s language.<br>Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Mark TWAIN. <i>Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Tom Sawyer's comrade).</i> New York, 1885. First American edition.<br>Est. 5 000 / 6 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Walt WHITMAN. <i>Leaves of Grass.</i> Brooklyn, New York, 1856. Second edition gathering 32 poems. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Karen BLIXEN. <i>Out of Africa.</i> Londres, 1937. First edition in the UK, before Danish translation and American release.<br>Est. 1 500 / 2 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Ernest HEMINGWAY. <i>A Farewell to Arms.</i> New York, 1929. First edition with $2.50 on the dust and A on the copyright page.<br>Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris, Shakespeare and Company, 1922. First edition published by Sylvia Beach. Est. 3 000 / 4 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> James JOYCE. <i>Dubliners.</i> Londres, 1914. First edition. Nice copy in publisher’s cardboard. Est. 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> Franz KAFKA. 8 novels in German first edition, published in München, Leipzig and Berlin 1916-1931. Est. from 300 / 400 to 2 000 / 3 000 €
    <b>ALDE, Feb. 26:</b> David Herbert LAWRENCE. <i>Lady Chatterley's Lover.</i> Florence, 1928. Privately printed first edition. Est. 4 000 / 5 000 €
    John STEINBECK. <i>The Grapes of Wrath.</i> New York, 1939. First edition. Nice copy with $2.75 on the cover. Est. 1 000 / 1 200 €

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