Who Bears the Loss from the David Slade Thefts?
David Slade (from the ABA Newsletter).
By Michael Stillman
One of the uglier criminal book theft cases came to its legal conclusion earlier this year when David Slade, Past President of England's Antiquarian Booksellers Association, was sentenced to 28 months in prison. Slade had been hired by the very wealthy Sir Evelyn de Rothschild to catalogue his library. Slade provided "services" beyond those called for in the contract, namely, pilfering at least $340,000 worth of books. He pleaded guilty. The case has been an enormous embarrassment to the ABA and booksellers everywhere, but Slade, whose reputation and finances are in shambles, has paid dearly for his actions. Unfortunately, he is not the only one likely to pay for his crimes, and herein lies one of the uglier side effects of this sordid tale. Which innocent bystanders will also be forced to pay for Mr. Slade's crimes?
The sentencing of Mr. Slade ended the criminal case, but left unresolved who bears the financial losses. Here is the problem. When the stolen books were sold, Mr. Slade received the proceeds. To the extent he still has them, he will be required to return the money to the innocent victims. However, according to the court, Mr. Slade was not so much motivated by greed as by financial difficulties. He needed the money to keep his head above water. In other words, most of the money he received is long gone. Someone is going to be out the ill-gained money he spent. The question is... who?
The answer likely depends on which group of books is considered. There are two: those which can be traced, and those which cannot. Those which cannot be traced beyond Mr. Slade, will almost certainly end up being Mr. Rothschild's loss. Those which can be traced, especially those which are recovered, will likely result in someone else's loss.
The reason those that cannot be traced will likely be Mr. Rothschild's loss is there is simply no one else in the chain, other than the broke Mr. Slade, who can be held accountable. However, for those books that are found, and we are not familiar enough with British law to be certain, but in most American jurisdictions, the loss would probably fall to the first person in the chain who has enough money to repay. First off, since the books are stolen property, Mr. Rothschild is entitled to their return. So, for example, if Bookseller #1 bought a stolen book from Mr. Slade, then sold it to Bookseller #2, who sold it to Mr. Collector, Mr. Collector would be obligated to give the stolen book back to Mr. Rothschild. He would receive nothing from Mr. Rothschild in return, though he may have spent thousands of dollars to buy the book. Too bad. He is out the money. However, Mr. Collector would be entitled to sue Bookseller #2 for selling him a book he did not own, and thereby recover his losses. Bookseller #2 could in turn sue Bookseller #1 on the same grounds. So in this case, it is Bookseller #1 who ends up losing his money. The only person he could sue, Mr. Slade, has no money to repay him. Now if Bookseller #1, like Mr. Slade, is broke, the loss then ends with Bookseller #2, and if he too is broke, Mr. Collector ends up as the loser. Only Mr. Rothschild is safe from loss if the book is found.
Who Bears the Loss from the David Slade Thefts?
Now this case has another twist. It appears that most of these books were brought by Mr. Slade to Dominic Winter Book Auctions. This might appear to make Dominic Winter first in the chain for all of the losses. However, according to an article in the Antiques Trade Gazette, Winter has taken the position that they do not guarantee title to the books they auction (presumably, their position is also that they never claim to take title to items they auction, so therefore are not part of the chain). We have not read their contracts, nor do we know whether British law permits such limitation of liability. According to This Is Gloucester, Rothschild is suing Dominic Winter, which would certainly imply he takes a different view of the auction house's liability. However, if Winter's position is upheld, then the greatest risk, at least for those books that have been returned, probably rests with the first purchaser, the ones who purchased at Winter's auction (quite likely a bookseller).
There is one other group of books whose legal status is particularly unclear to us: those that have been traced to the first purchaser, but not beyond. Evidently, some books were sold by Winter to booksellers, who in turn sold them to collectors "unknown." It is not clear to us whether the bookseller has any liability to anyone in this case. Such a dealer is likely to be liable to reimburse the collector if the collector is forced to return the book to Rothschild, but it is not clear to us whether the dealer has any liability if the book is never located. Perhaps this may discourage some booksellers from trying too hard to remember to whom they sold the books. The ABA has called on all such booksellers to identify their customers. This is a painful demand since it might conceivably lead to catastrophic losses to the innocent bookseller, yet the ABA, and ultimately the bookseller, has no other ethical choice, despite the consequences.
When Slade began his process of stealing books from the library of Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, he probably convinced himself that his crime was not all that bad, that the losses were insignificant to a man worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Sir Evelyn undoubtedly felt betrayed and violated by Slade's actions, but it is true he won't lose his livelihood, his house, or his retirement. He will not be forced to sell apples on a street corner. But as we see, it is hard to know who will end up being victimized once the crimes hit the fan. Ironically, it could end up being some bookseller, struggling to get by while remaining true to standards of honesty and integrity, who pays for Mr. Slade's dishonesty. Mr. Slade has earned his current place of residence.