A federal judge ruled today that a historic letter from Alexander Hamilton to the Marquis de Lafayette that disappeared from the Massachusetts State Archives sometime in the 1930s or 1940s belongs to the state, not to the family that was trying to sell it at auction decades after the family patriarch bought it.
US Magistrate Judge Judith Dein said the state never gave up ownership of the letter and said the family offered no proof the state had "abandoned" the letter, and that even if it had, state law makes it illegal for them to possess the letter, in which Hamilton wrote Lafayette on July 21, 1780 to advise him of British naval and troop movements in Long Island Sound and Rhode Island.
The family promptly appealed.
Officials had thought the letter was gone forever, victim of an unscrupulous Archives employee who spent several years secreting potentially valuable historic documents written by Founding Fathers including Washington, Franklin, Revere and Hamilton and then selling them one at a time to dealers across the country. He was arrested in 1950 and, at the time, the Massachusetts Attorney General's office sent out bulletins to rare-book and manuscript dealers across the country about the missing document.
But it had been sitting for decades in the collection of R.E. Crane, a South Carolina man, who bought it from a rare-book and document dealer in Syracuse, NY in 1945 and whose heirs commissioned an auction house to sell the letter in 2018. A researcher at the auction house attempting to prove the letter's provenance found the letter's text on a federal Web site that archives the text Revolutionary documents, along with a notation that the actual document was "missing."
The auction house contacted the Archives, which confirmed the document was, in fact, missing and had been stolen in the 1940s. The auction house then contacted the FBI, which seized the letter - now stored in an FBI facility in Boston, which the US Attorney's office in Boston followed up on by "suing" the document itself to recover it for the Archives. The family decided to fight to retain ownership.
Dein reached several conclusions in her decision to return the missing letter to the State Archives, starting with the fact that Massachusetts public-records laws dating to 1897 give the state ownership of all public documents and that, as defined by those laws, the letter was a public record - especially because the laws including a specific notation for documents in state possession before 1800, which the letter was. Further the law says that only the state can ever own the originals of such documents.
She rejected the family's argument that the state "abandoned" the document to the marketplace, noting the state and the FBI provided copious evidence that it had been stolen, while the family offered no proof at all to support its argument, for example, any citations or bills of sale that proved the state had decided to get rid of the letter.
Since the document was stolen, the family could not profit from its sale, especially because it was legally still the state's property, so they had no right to it, she ruled.
And then there's the whole question of whether Old Man Crane actually acquired the letter legally and that the family was an "innocent owner" of the letter.
The estate provided only a copy of a postmarked letter from the book dealer to Crane at his office at the time as proof.
The United States and the Commonwealth challenge the sufficiency of these conclusory assertions, and question whether a truly reputable dealer and buyer would not have known of the document's "true provenance" given the type of correspondence in question, the law preventing the Commonwealth from alienating such documents, and the publicity about the theft.
And a stolen document is still a stolen document even if the current owner didn't realize that, she continued.
In the instant case, persons who have taken possession of a public record are obligated to return the public document to its governmental custodian on demand, and the failure to do so subjects the person retaining the public record to fines and/or imprisonment.
Finally, Dein rejected the family's argument that they should regain control of the letter because 75 years is simply too long for the state to suddenly claim ownership.
In the instant case, the record is clear that the Commonwealth notified police when the theft was discovered and publicized the theft in a number of places.At some point the missing document was listed in a national database so that sellers could determine that the document was “missing” from the Archives.Once notified of the potential sale of the Letter by the Estate, the government acted swiftly in seeking its return. While no conclusive ruling needs to be made on this affirmative offense, the claim of [excessive delay] does not appear to be supported by the factual record. Moreover, the Estate has not established any prejudice by the delay. The family enjoyed its possession of the Letter. No events over the years could change the fact that the Commonwealth could not legally give up its ownership of the Letter.