Texas Sues Private Owner for Old State Documents
Among the documents at issue are some pertaining to William Travis, leader of Texas' troops at the Alamo.
By Michael Stillman
There is an interesting case going on in Texas right now that ties in with the recent prosecutions for thefts in the book world. Of course everyone is familiar with the Smiley case, where a map dealer sliced maps from old books during numerous library visits and walked out with them stuffed in a briefcase. There wasn't much question of guilt or innocence, right and wrong there. The dealer wisely pleaded guilty and appears to hope that cooperation will reduce his sentence.
The Texas case is not so clear, not so black and white. There is no guilt or innocence, no right or wrong. The issue here has to do with thefts (maybe), but if so, they happened a long time ago. The present owners are apparently not suspected of involvement in their disappearance long ago.
Here are the facts as best known, at least publicly. About a year ago, some parties in Waco, Texas, put 48 historical documents pertaining to Texas up for auction. Many deal with Texas' Republic period, or even earlier. For example, there is a receipt for supplies at the Alamo signed by William Travis, a resignation letter from Jose Antonio Navarro, and certification that Travis was in the Texas Army when he died at the Alamo. These are certainly significant documents in Texas history.
However, this raises some thorny issues. The defendants in the suit initiated by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission, including the Robert E. Davis Family Trust (Davis is no longer alive), have not said how they obtained the material, but no one has implied that his surviving family members, nor Davis himself, did anything improper. The State Library Commission believes the documents disappeared from their care in the early 1970s. However, "care" is used loosely here. Apparently, little was done in terms of security at the time. Someone easily could have lifted them and sold the material to an unsuspecting buyer. For that matter, someone at the Library Commission might conceivably have dumped the material, or sold it for a song. It's possible the documents made their way to the Davises without anyone engaging in wrongdoing, and Mr. Davis bought them fair and square. Then again, maybe they were stolen. Who knows? In such a case, should the Davises be required to return the material? They could be legitimate owners of properly purchased goods, innocent purchasers of stolen goods (who are therefore still obligated to return them to the rightful owner), or thieves. What should be done?
Texas Sues Private Owner for Old State Documents
Here is what the Texas State Library and Archives is doing - suing. They want the material back. We don't know if they have any suspicions they haven't let on, but presuming they are as lost as we on the question of whether the documents made their way to the Davises through theft or legal transactions, they still want them back. Now the Texas Library has access to some tools not available to the rest of us when our books disappear. Preservation and Management of State Records and Other Historical Resources Code section 441.192 (look it up if you don't believe me) provides that the librarian "may demand the return of any state government record of permanent value in the private possession of any person."
Think about that one! Talk about an unfair advantage. These records have obvious permanent value, so the state can just demand them. The statute doesn't require that the documents be improperly obtained. The state could sell them to a collector and then demand them back. Presumably they could keep the money. The statute doesn't say anything about returning money for valuable records they sold. There's an interesting new source of revenue for states facing budget deficits.
So what can the Davises do? Well, like the state, they can get themselves a clever lawyer. Here is how they are defending their ownership. Note that the statute refers to "any state government record." Well, say the Davises, these are not state government records. Most pertain to the Republic of Texas, not the State of Texas, or even the Mexican Province of Texas. The state has no more right to these documents under this statute, say the Davises, than they do to, say, prehistoric arrowheads found on private property.
That's a clever argument, though the state still maintains they are state records. We'll leave this one to the courts to decide. It's an unusual situation anyway. Even if they were State of Texas records, this would still be an uncommon situation. What remains open are issues concerning most documents which may or may not have been stolen long ago, and are now in the hands of innocent buyers. It is so easy to decide when there is a good guy and a bad guy. It's really tough when both guys are good. I have no great insights other than to recommend that when you purchase your next rare book, you get clear documentation of the sale. If it has a library or government stamp, make sure it has a deaccession one too. And if it is a valuable Texas government record, just say no.
Here is a link to the official Texas Missing List: http://www.tsl.state.tx.us/arc/missingintro.html