MINEOLA, N.Y. (CN) - The New York Public Library threatened a spurious criminal action against a Long Island woman to make her give up an original Ben Franklin manuscript and seven sacred texts that have been in her family for decades, a lawsuit alleges.
Nassau resident Margaret Tanchuck, 50, claims that the manuscripts have been in her family for nearly 30 years. She found the contested works in her father's jewelry store while administering her parents' estates, her lawsuit says.
Since that time, Tanchuck took the antiquarian texts to the Doyle New York auction house for their "appraisal and ultimate sale," according to her 13-page complaint.
Dated from between 1759 and 1766, the Franklin workbook alone would fetch more than $2 million, the complaint states.
Her lawyer Dan Arshack, from the firm Barket, Marion, Epstein & Kearon, LLP in Garden City, N.Y., said in a phone interview that the Franklin manuscript had notes from the founding father's printing shop operations.
"It's a fascinating glimpse at what he was involved in printing," he said.
There is no dollar value assigned to the seven sacred texts also named in the complaint, including five Bibles from the 17th to 19th centuries and two printings of the "Acta Apostolrum" dated between the 18th and 19th centuries.
Despite insisting the texts came into its possession between 24 and 27 years ago, the library did not lay a claim to the manuscripts until Doyle New York contacted it last year, Tanchuck says.
"However, not once during those 24-27 years did the NYPL make any effort to claim (or re-claim) the contested items, made no announcement of its loss or misplacement, did not report the contested items missing to the police or any other law enforcement agency, did not make any claim to an insurer and did not generate a single internal document acknowledging the loss or misplacement of the contested items," the complaint states. "Instead, the NYPL now asserts title merely by suggesting, as the only basis of its claim of title, that because it cannot now locate any records of having sold or transferred the items it must be the rightful owner." [Parentheses in original.]
"Obviously, though, the NYPL's ability to track and maintain its material is, to say the least, imperfect," Tanchuck's complaint continues.
Neither the library nor the family can authenticate their claims with documentation, according to the lawsuit.
With Tanchuck's parents deceased, their "testimony is now impossible to obtain," she notes.
"Any receipts, bills of sale, or records of transfer of these items are gone," the lawsuit states.
While Tanchuck acknowledges the library "may well have once owned" the manuscripts, she claims it is "unaware of how or when the items left its control."
The competing allegations came to a head at a confrontation between attorneys for Tanchuck and the library on Jan. 29 this year, according to the lawsuit.
At this meeting, Tanchuck's lawyer allegedly asserted that the library's failure to claim the works earlier meant that the family had a valid title to the manuscripts under the legal doctrine of "laches" - a legal doctrine derived from the French word laschesse, or "slackness," that invalidates cases involving an unreasonable delay that has prevented a party from obtaining witnesses and evidence.
"In response, counsel for the NYPL denied the availability of laches and attempted to gain an advantage in this matter by threatening a criminal [prosecution] and claimed they would seek the help of the Federal Bureau of lnvestigations or the New York City Police Department," the complaint states.
Describing the library's threats as veiled, Arshack commented that his client never took them seriously.
"There was no indication, zero indication that this was ever a theft," he said.
Though the lawsuit was filed on April 3, Arshack said the library was served with the lawsuit on Monday.
The library's counsel has not attempted to contact Tanchuck's lawyer for more than three months, and the auction house had indicated that it would stop insuring the manuscripts on April 15, according to the complaint.
Tanchuck seeks a judgment declaring that she has clear title to the works.
Library spokeswoman Angela Montefinise said in an email to Courthouse News that there is "no question that these items belong to The New York Public Library."
"We will not be satisfied with any resolution short of their return to the library, where they will be properly preserved for the use of the public," she added.
The library contends it is undisputed that the works come from NYPL's collections, and says that the documents should benefit the public and researchers rather than profit a private estate.
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