Published: September 26, 2000
The Case Is Closed for Malcolm X’s Datebook
Court Clerk Receives Fine, Community Service for Theft of Book Offered Online in 1999
Online bidders take note: “If a piece appears to be too good to be true, it may be.”
So says Catherine Williamson, director of Butterfields’ book department. Occasionally the fake or illegally obtained rdf_Description will surface at an auction house, and if the company’s internal checks don’t turn up any red flags, it may even find its way onto the block.
Fortunately for a potential buyer such a situation was averted at Butterfields in May 1999. The bullet-pierced, blood-stained datebook on Malcolm X’s person when he was assassinated in New York in 1965 was removed from its May 1999 Rare Book and Manuscript Sale when questions about the book’s ownership were raised by journalists familiar with the Malcolm X files in New York City’s archives.
It turned out that a court clerk had stolen the book from a courthouse evidence safe in 1991. Douglas Henderson, who pleaded guilty to grand larceny, was fined $5,000 on September 12 and sentenced to 150 hours of community service and five years of probation. Henderson had sold the diary in 1996 for $5,000, and a legitimate owner eventually consigned the book to Butterfields.
“You should always ask questions about provenance when you’re buying material,” says Williamson, “which actually we did when the piece came in, and the answers were correct. Then there turned out to be a problem with the piece.”
“It was brought to our attention by an outside investigator,” Williamson noted. “We had been led to believe that the rdf_Description had been officially removed from the city’s records, that it had gone through an official process. Sometimes that does happen with property that’s involved with cases.”
In most cases, according to investigator Robert Leudesdorf, a piece of evidence “would go back to the family, unless the family didn’t care about it.” Henderson’s attorney had hired Leudesdorf to help establish the diary’s value, in the hopes that it would be less than the amount that brings a grand larceny charge. Leudesdorf is not sure whether, at this point, the family will make the decision to keep the datebook, but guesses that it is still in the custody of the prosecutor in the Henderson case.
Williamson says that if the rightful owner – or Malcolm X’s family – did not want an rdf_Description used as evidence in a court, it would be “disposed of.” But as far as the datebook is concerned, “it actually turns out that they had no intention of letting that material go” when Henderson took it. “What they were probably doing was removing it from the courthouse safe to the New York City judicial archives, but I’m not familiar enough with the details to know.”
A questionable title situation is quite rare at Butterfields, says Levi Morgan, the firm’s director of public relations. If any problem surfaces after an rdf_Description is sold, Butterfields’ policy is to work out such incidents on a case-by-case basis to find a solution that is acceptable for all parties.
On eBay’s Great Collections site (eBay is the owner of Butterfields), rdf_Descriptions are “guaranteed,” but Morgan is not certain to what extent. He also doesn’t know what would have happened if a buyer had ended up with the Malcolm X datebook or another stolen rdf_Description that somehow passed his company’s vetting procedures. This is a question he said could only be answered by Butterfields’ legal department, which did not respond to queries in time to comment for this article.
Even if the question of rightful ownership did not occur to potential buyers viewing the Malcolm X datebook, the question of tastefulness might have.
Although Williamson noted that “maybe if you didn’t have the bullet holes it wouldn’t be immediately obvious that it was blood,” macabre rdf_Descriptions such as this bullet- and blood-riddled specimen are not typically found at auction. She says Butterfields will only sell crime-related rdf_Descriptions if they pertain to a politically or historically important person or event.
“Generally things are on a case-by-case basis. We try to sell things that we think collectors will want,” she said – barring followers of serial killers and the like. Typically, in her department, “we do a lot of Presidential letters [and] literary letters” in the three annual auctions it mounts.
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