A Manhattan federal judge on Tuesday refused to intervene in a bitter legal fight over a valuable Ben Franklin manuscript and other rare texts found in a deceased Glen Head jeweler's store that has pitted his daughter against the New York Public Library and triggered a grand jury probe.
The library claims the items -- including records from Franklin's printing business valued at $2 million -- were stolen, but lawyers for the estate of John Caggiano accuse the library of recruiting federal prosecutors to try to "strong-arm" his daughter into returning artifacts it completely lost track of in the late 1980s.
"She doesn't want it to go back to an institution that couldn't even care for a national treasure," said Amy Marion, a lawyer for Margaret Tanchuck, Caggiano's daughter and the executor of his estate. "They have failed to take care of it."
The library said it just wants its property back. "This material belongs to the Library for the free use of the public," spokesman Kenneth Weine said in a statement.
Caggiano ran J&J Jewelry in Glen Head, acquiring merchandise through a network of sources and by trolling estate sales of the wealthy on Nassau's Gold Coast, Tanchuck's lawyers said. He died in 2009, his wife died in 2013, and no one knows exactly where the Franklin workbook and seven rare Bibles, one printed in 1672, came from.
The legal dispute arose when Tanchuck took the artifacts to a Manhattan appraiser, Doyle New York. The firm saw library markings and notified the library, which said it owned them. Tanchuck sued in Nassau County to clear her family's title. The case is pending. The library went to federal prosecutors, who seized the items and convened a grand jury.
Tuesday's hearing focused on a side issue -- a dispute over who would get the items back when the investigation is complete. When prosecutors -- who are convinced they were stolen -- promised to return them to whoever wins the Nassau case, U.S. District Judge Sidney Stein said there was no need for him to make a ruling.
The library says it obtained the items in 1929 and that they were likely taken sometime between 1988 and 1991. It has not explained when it noticed they were missing or what it did during the ensuing quarter-century, and that is key to Tanchuck's claim.
Under a doctrine called "laches," a person with a legal claim can lose it if they prejudice their adversary by not pursuing it in a timely fashion. Because the library did nothing, Tanchuck says -- and her father isn't around to say where he got it -- any chance of showing his source might have bought it from the library has evaporated.
"The very people who could shed light on it are deceased," said Daniel Arshack, another lawyer for the estate, who says the library has "flexed its political muscle" as a major cultural institution by recruiting the government to help its legal claim.
But prosecutors said there's nothing questionable about having a grand jury investigate a reported theft, and Weine, in his statement, said the library acted promptly when notified by Doyle.
"The moment the library learned of the items' whereabouts, it began pursuing their rightful return," he said, "and will continue to work towards this end."