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Sep 22, 2008 6:19 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

Prized book fuels ownership dispute

Sep 22, 2008 6:19 PM

A local book dealer and a world renowned doctor are butting heads in an ethical battle over ownership of a valuable book and the moral dilemma may soon give way to legal combat.

According to world renowned autism doctor and North Haven resident Sid Baker, when he packaged up 22 cartons of books from his collection and donated them to the Montauk Library last summer, he mistakenly included a volume of significant monetary value and, for him, even greater personal importance. The contested book is about the artwork of 20th-century painter Marc Chagall and it contains a personal inscription to Dr. Baker by the late artist.

“It has a particular connection to my life’s work,” Dr. Baker said, describing his predicament on Monday. The doctor explained that Mr. Chagall’s nephew invited him to speak at an autism conference in Los Angeles, California sometime in the 1980s, before Mr. Chagall’s death, though he could not recall the exact date. While Dr. Baker was there, the nephew gave his guest the book in recognition of his work in the field. Inside, Marc Chagall had written simply, “To Dr. Sid Baker, to life,” translating the Hebrew phrase “l’chaim,” and signed his name.

Dr. Baker wasn’t aware the book was missing until August when his wife, local artist Louise Reiner, took her visiting cousin around Sag Harbor. The two bought coffee at Java Nation on Main Street and then visited the nearby used and rare bookstore, Black Cat Books. It was there Ms. Reiner found her husband’s book with a $1,500 price tag. The volume was prominently displayed in a glass case with the inscription and price printed on a card alongside it.

Ms. Reiner returned home to tell her husband of the find.

“How this book ended up in there, I have no idea,” Dr. Baker said, recalling his astonishment when he discovered his error. He said he immediately called the bookseller and explained the situation, only to learn that the owners, Michael Kinsey and Dawn Hedberg, were selling the book for another dealer.

Mr. Kinsey agreed to pull the book from his shelf and give Dr. Baker a chance to resolve the issue with the man who had consigned it, Shelter Island book dealer Bill Burton of “Old Books Under the Sign of the Turtle.” Dr. Baker said Mr. Kinsey described Mr. Burton as “a nice guy” and he was optimistic that his book would be returned.

Things did not work out quite the way he’d hoped.

“He offered it to me for $500,” Dr. Baker said, recalling his first phone call with Mr. Burton. “I was surprised by his tone,” the doctor said. “I wasn’t prepared for him to be quite so unforgiving.”

The frustrated physician noted that the situation was a classic battle between two rules: “finders keepers” and “the golden rule.”

Disappointed, Dr. Baker held his tongue and told Mr. Burton he’d consider the offer. Shortly thereafter, he contacted his friend and “big shot” Connecticut litigator, Jeremy Melitz, and placed a call to the Montauk Library, where his woes began.

Despite Mr. Melitz sending letters to both Black Cat Books and Mr. Burton, Dr. Baker said the dealer rescinded his $500 offer and said he’d need the full $1,500 to return the book. According to the doctor, Mr. Burton told him that returning the book without recouping hundreds of dollars would be impossible due to his expenses and the Black Cat’s right to profit from the sale.

Dr. Baker said that Mr. Kinsey “acted honorably” and wanted no further involvement in the messy situation. The shop owner returned the book to Mr. Burton, Dr. Baker said, asserting that a woman at the library said the dealer’s expenses weren’t likely to have exceeded $10. Mr. Burton “wasn’t truthful with me,” Dr. Baker said, saying he’s now seeking justice just as vigorously as his prized book.

On Tuesday, Mr. Burton said the situation was cut and dried. “I have a book, I came by it legally and I’m trying to sell it,” the dealer said, adding later, “There is no issue. When you give something away, you don’t own it anymore.”

He remarked that Dr. Baker had no legal leg to stand on and that’s why he’d gone public with their quarrel. “If he had legal grounds for this, then 50 percent of everyone’s stock can leave the store,” Mr. Burton said, explaining that the used and rare book trade is dependent on yard sale finds and purchases from charitable organizations, such as libraries, churches and the Ladies Village Improvement Society, among many. If Dr. Baker were able to just reclaim his book because he saw it in a shop with a high price, “The whole system falls apart,” Mr. Burton said.

He noted that Dr. Baker had not included a list of books in his library donation, which would have been a responsible move that might have shown whether or not he had actually intended to donate the volume before realizing its value. “That book was not missing until [Ms. Reiner] walked into the store,” Mr. Burton said, guessing that the doctor cared only about the book after he learned of its monetary value.

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As someone who has done a lot of prospecting at thrift stores and sold the items on ebay, and as someone who has authored a book, I think I'm pretty impartial here.

It does sadden me that authors make no profits once their books are used, and we all make mistakes sometimes in throwing away items we may later need, but Dr. Baker is out of his mind. Not much of a bedside manner there.

If something is donated, it's donated. The whole idea of prospecting items at thrift stores and ...more
By Mr Suffolk (113), Twin Forks on Sep 24, 08 10:57 AM
As a writer, a book lover, and a friend of several book dealers, I can say that most people have no idea of the time and effort it takes to find saleable material. (Clearly the librarian interviewed by the reporter hasn't got a clue.) Book dealers spend untold hours at estate sales, junk shops, yard sales, thrift shops, and on the internet as well in search of items they can turn around at a profit. And even when they find a rare or unusual book, it may sit on the shelf for years before it finds ...more
By booklover (1), Shelter Island on Sep 29, 08 10:10 AM
Write it off as a tax deduction, Doc.
By BruceB (142), Sag Harbor on Sep 29, 08 5:55 PM
This story is confusing: does the Montauk library routinely sell books that it receives as donations? Why did a doctor living in North Haven donate books to the Montauk library instead of one where he lives (Southampton or Sag Harbor) or any of the other libraries which are much closer? I too have donated things that I wish I had kept--especially when I see them marked with tags at thrift stores, but I have never asked for them to be returned. Dr. Baker should be happy he found a book that he loves ...more
By hellolotte (5), Sag Harbor on Oct 1, 08 10:34 AM
I can't answer why Dr. Baker chose to donate to the Montauk library, but yes, they do sell donated books in an annual book sale. It's a way for them to raise money for the library.

They did not return calls for this story.
By Oliver Peterson (19), Sag Harbor on Oct 1, 08 1:08 PM