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><center>Swann Auction Galleries<br>View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> Gideon Welles, <i>Extensive archive of personal and family papers of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy,</i> 1791-1914. Sold September 29 — $281,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Charles Addams, <i>Rock Climbers,</i> cartoon for <i>The New Yorker,</i> watercolor, ink and gouache, 1954. Sold December 15 — $37,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Charlotte Brontë, <i>Jane Eyre. An Autobiography. Edited by Currer Bell,</i> three volumes, first edition, 1847. Sold June 16, 2022 — $23,750.
    <b>Swann:</b> Geoffrey Chaucer, <i>The Workes of Geffray Chaucer Newlye Printed,</i> London, 1542. Sold October 13 — $106,250.
    <b><center>Swann Auction Galleries<br>View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> Dorothea Lange, <i>Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age 32),</i> silver print, 1936. Sold October 20 — $305,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> George Washington, Autograph Document Signed, with two manuscript plat maps in holograph, 1751. Sold October 27 — $37,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Winfred Rembert, <i>Winfred Rembert and Class of 1959,</i> dye on carved & tooled leather, 1999. Sold October 6 — $233,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> M.C. Escher, <i>Relativity,</i> lithograph, 1953. Sold November 3 — $81,250.
  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Original Film Posters<br>27 January - 10 February 2023</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Jan. 27-Feb. 10:</b> Vertigo (1958), poster, US. The ultimate poster on this classic Hitchcock title, one of three known examples. £40,000 to £60,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Jan. 27-Feb. 10:</b> Lawrence of Arabia (1962), roadshow poster, US. £8,000 to £12,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Jan. 27-Feb. 10:</b> Star Wars (1977), style C poster, printer's proof, US. £7,000 to £10,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Jan. 27-Feb. 10:</b> The Navigator/ La Croisiere du Navigator (1924), re-release poster (1931), French. £5,000 to £8,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Jan. 27-Feb. 10:</b> Bullitt (1968), special test poster, US. £3,000 to £5,000.
  • <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 817. Bellin's complete five-volume maritime atlas with 581 maps & plates (1764). $24,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 325. An early and important map of the Republic of Texas (1837). $11,000 to $14,000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 45. De Bry's early map of North Pole depicting Willem Barentsz' expedition (1601). $3,500 to $4,250.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 154. Poignant map of the United States documenting lynchings (1931). $250 to $325.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 457. Extremely rare matching set of pro-German propaganda from WWI (1914). $2,000 to $2,400.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 815. Homann's world atlas featuring 110 maps in contemporary color (1751). $14,000 to $16,000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 60. Miniature pocket globe based on Herman Moll (1785). $3,500 to $4,500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 8. Visscher's rare carte-a-figures world map (1652). $14,000 to $16,000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 158. Matching satirical maps of the US by McCandlish: "Ration Map" & "Bootlegger's Map" (1944). $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 820. One of the finest English atlases of the early 19th century (1808). $4,750 to $6,000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 59. Important milestone in preparation for 1969 moon landing (1963). $750 to $900.
    <b>Old World Auctions (Feb 8):</b> Lot 805. Superb bible leaf with image of crucifixion of Jesus with gilt highlights (1518). $800 to $950.
  • <center><b>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Fine Books & Manuscripts,<br>including Americana<br>February 16, 2023</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 16:</b> [KELMSCOTT PRESS]. CHAUCER, Geoffrey. <i>The Works…now newly imprinted.</i> Edited by F.S. Ellis. Hammersmith: Kelmscott Press, 1896. $100,000 to $125,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 16:</b> [EINSTEIN, Albert (1879–1955)]. –– ORLIK, Emil (1870–1932), artist. Lithograph signed (“Albert Einstein”). N.p., 1928. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 16:</b> TOLKIEN, John Ronald Reuel. <i>[The Lord of the Rings trilogy:] The Fellowship of the Ring.</i> 1954. –– <i>The Two Towers.</i> 1954. –– <i>The Return of the King.</i> 1955. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 16:</b> CLEMENS, Samuel Langhorne ("Mark Twain") and Charles Dudley WARNER. <i>The Gilded Age: A Tale of Today.</i> Hartford and Chicago, 1873. $6,000 to $8,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Feb. 16:</b> LOVECRAFT, Howard Phillips. <i>Beyond the Wall of Sleep.</i> Collected by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1943. $2,000 to $3,000.
  • <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair
    <center><b>California International Antiquarian Book Fair<br>February 10-12, 2023<br>Pasadena Convention Center<br> abaa.org/cabookfair

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions