Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2007 Issue

A Delayed Auction Raises Legal and Financial Issues

Verdict

Appeals Court ruled in favor of private owner over the State of South Carolina


By Michael Stillman

An auction took place in South Carolina at the end of September that highlights two issues in the world of book and manuscript collecting, one legal, one financial. The items in question were a group of Civil War letters, including three from Robert E. Lee. For example, on December 27, 1861, Lee wrote South Carolina Governor Francis Pickens, "The strength of the enemy, as far as I am able to judge, exceeds the whole force that we have in the state." In another, Major William Mullins wrote, "But shall I tell you now of the battlefield? Of the dead hideous in every form of ghastly death: heads off, arms off, abdomens protruding, every form of wound, low groans, sharp cries...convulsive agonies as the souls took flight." This was a collection of clear historic significance, still emotionally wrenching after all of this time.

The collection belonged to one Thomas Law Willcox, gathered from the home of his late stepmother seven or eight years ago. They came to his family long, long ago, through Wilcox's great-great uncle, Confederate General Evander Law. Law secured them ahead of Sherman's army, advancing on South Carolina's capital of Columbia. It wasn't until Willcox one day decided to look through the envelopes he had taken that he realized what he had was something special. Three years ago, he planned to offer them at auction, and so began the legal tangle in this story.

In recent years, many states have aggressively pursued their claims to documents long ago purloined from their archives, even though the current owners were far removed from any such taking. A few years ago, the State of North Carolina was able to secure the return of its copy of the Declaration of Independence, confiscated by a returning Ohio soldier at the end of the Civil War. There is no statute of limitations on these claims. However, the claims have now been extended, and in some states such as Texas recognized by statute, to items that disappeared years ago under unknown circumstances. They were not necessarily stolen. The documents may have been thrown away, sold, given away...who knows? If a state can claim it is/was a state document, it may have a case. Such was the belief of South Carolina, which sued Willcox for the papers. They obtained a restraining order the day before the original sale was to take place.

Willcox, who had invested money in appraisals, promptly filed bankruptcy, which allowed him to contest ownership of the papers in the Federal Bankruptcy Court. He lost there, but won on appeal to the Federal District Court. The State responded by appealing that decision, arguing in September of 2006 before the Federal Appeals Court. There, South Carolina lost again. The Appeals Court ruled in a case such as this, without a clear chain of title, eyewitnesses, and the like, it is necessary to look to the "common law," where, the Court noted, "possession is nine-tenths of the law." That put the burden on the State to prove it owned the documents, either through some evidence of title or recent possession. It could show neither.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Edward Hopper & His Contemporaries:<br>Making a Modern American Art<br>June 30, 2022
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Edward Hopper, <i>The Railroad,</i> etching, 1922. $70,000 to $100,000.
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Edward Hopper, <i>Sheet of Studies with Men in Hats and a Saloon Keeper,</i> pen, ink & pencil, circa 1900-05. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Edward Hopper, <i>Night Shadows,</i> etching, 1921. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries<br>Edward Hopper & His Contemporaries:<br>Making a Modern American Art<br>June 30, 2022
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> John Marin, <i>Woolworth Building, No. 2,</i> etching & drypoint, 1913. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Charles Demuth, <i>Tulips,</i> watercolor & pencil, 1924. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Swann June 30:</b> Edward Hopper, <i>Under Control,</i> gouache, ink & wash, circa 1907-10. $30,000 to $50,000.
  • <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> JESSE JAMES. Autograph Letter Signed on the attack at his home which maimed his mother and killed his nephew Archie, 6 pp, March 23, 1875. THE MOST IMPORTANT JESSE JAMES LETTER EXTANT. $300,000 to $500,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> THE LETTER THAT ARRIVED TOO LATE: An important letter from Robert E. Lee to Ulysses S. Grant across the battlefield at Cold Harbor, June 6, 1864. $120,000 to $180,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> DAVY CROCKETT. Autograph Letter Signed on his political philosophy and his dispute with Andrew Jackson, "at home Weakley County," August 18, 1831. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> GEORGE WASHINGTON. Letter Signed to Colonel Richard Gridley, the first engineer of the American Army, Morris Town, January 9, 1777. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> SCOTT FITZGERALD. <i>Tender is the Night.</i> FIRST EDITION, INSCRIBED to H.A. Swanseid. $30,000 to $50,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS. <i>Tarzan of the Apes.</i> FIRST EDITION. $40,000 to $60,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> J.R.R. TOLKIEN. <i>The Hobbit, or There and Back Again.</i> FIRST EDITION. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> NATHANAEL WEST. <i>The Day of the Locust.</i> PRESENTATION COPY, inscribed to director Richard Wallace in the year of publication. $6,000 to $8,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> FRANCIS PICABIA. Archive of 17 Autograph Letters signed to Jennie Thiersch on art and life, 1948-1951. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> JOHN HANCOCK. Autograph Letter Signed to his wife Dolly from the Continental Congress, 4 pp, Philadelphia, March 10-11, 1777. $8,000 to $12,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 28:</b> NIGHTGOWN WORN BY CHARLOTTE CARDEZA DURING THE TITANIC DISASTER AND RESCUE. $40,000 to $60,000

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