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Judge orders return of Alexander Hamilton letter to Massachusetts archives; says family that owned it for 75 years is owed nothing because it was stolen

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.

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sent out bulletins to rear-books and manuscript dealers across the country

The combat zone used to have bookstores that sold rear-books.

Now they probably sell them at Amazing.... or maybe they are digital now.

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Voting closed 27

In the meantime, typo fixed.

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The combat zone used to have bookstores that sold rear-books.

Now they probably sell them at Amazing.... or maybe they are digital now.

Imagine my dismay when I found out that the "digital" prostate exam that my doctor was about to perform did not involve computers -- or really much of technology of any kind. Later that day I was walking past the optician shop, which had a large sign offering "digital eye exams" and I shuddered and thought, "no, I'm fine, thanks very much just the same."

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Interesting...state rules stolen property returned to owners. Reminds me of something else

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The thing is though that this was a public document which was reported stolen at the time the theft was discovered. I thought there was a statute of limitations too.

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Statute of limitations limits the state’s ability to prosecute for a crime committed in the past. Nobody is being charged or prosecuted in this case.

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Well, there is a time limit to collect a debt, and a limit for land ownership claims. It's a little strange that it's different for a piece of paper.

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I am no lawyer nor legal expert but when it comes to stolen property, is it not still stolen property until it is returned to its rightful owner?

What I mean is that "possession of stolen property" is a crime, not that anyone currently involved is being prosecuted or may have been willing participants in any crimes involving the property, but the crime itself is still ongoing as long as the property remains "stolen."

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Voting closed 17

This theft was reported and broadly advertised fairly close to when it happened. It's not as if the state waited 70 years to notice something was missing. As the article says, the information was available to any reputable dealer who bothered about things like establishing provenance decades ago.

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Interest in land never "expires" or times out. It gets handed down through heirs indefinitely if need be.

Ask Neal, he knows about these things.

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Voting closed 13

That defense didn't work?

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that "Possession is 9 tenths of the law," so this must be the other 10%.

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That's why they had the FBI go grab it for them.

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The Constitution explicitly states... that "Possession is 9 tenths of the law," so this must be the other 10%.

In his days as a young lawyer prior to holding public office, Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Half of the amateur Constitutional Law commentary you read on the Internet is complete bullshit."

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Voting closed 41

The judge’s ruling is fair. I don’t blame the family for trying to get some money out of it. But the letter should never have become private, stolen property.

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And while perhaps they didn't know the exact way Gramps procured the letter, they knew it wasn't exactly on the up and up or else they would've appraised and insured it on their homeowner's insurance decades ago. That would require some sort of authentication or documentation of the letter itself.

And if that's somehow not the case, then I'm calling Geico right now to add a lost copy of the Declaration of Independence to our policy.

Then accidently leave the stove on and go on vacation.

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Voting closed 31

The theft was reported and both the seller and the buyer either took no steps to investigate that public fact, didn't want to know, or knew and didn't care.

In any case, the family is owed nothing, and should be happy that criminal liability in the situation expired long ago.

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for being greedy scumbags.

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Yes. And especially for appealing such a clear cut case. Obviously deplorable people wasting the court's time.

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I knew a really interesting gentleman years ago who as a child was a family friend to JFK's personal secretary while she worked in the White House.

He collected EVERYTHING related to JFK and decades later had to fight the Kennedys when he tried to sell inarguably his stuff.

Granted, he didn't have any stolen ephemera from the National Archives afaik *wink* but he did have a wild assortment of relics, artifacts, and legit bizarre oddities from around the world that teeter the line of legality. He had shrunken human heads for god's sakes.

He has since passed and who knows where, or if, his collection was scattered to the winds but it's something I'll never forget seeing as long as I live.

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Voting closed 25

A tangentially relevant, but quirkily interesting bit of common law history is the (now mostly abolished) principle of Market Ouvert, which held that if you bought something in an open public market between sunrise and sunset, you had clear title to it irrespective of its provenance.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Market_overt

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@Bob Leponge Is that French?

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Law_French

Still survives in terms like: "attorney", "bailiff", "cy-pres", "defendant", "estoppel", "force majeure", "jury", "larceny", "mortgage", "parole", "plaintiff", "torts", "voir dire".

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The original French was Marché Ouvert, but, because after 1066 in England, French speakers kinda owned the joint and wrote the rules a lot of legal terms hew pretty close to the original French. For example, English generally puts the adjective before the noun it modifies; French often after, and we stuck with French word order for “Attorney General”

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