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In a contest over who owns an artifact of New Jersey’s history, a judge has temporarily barred the Internet auction of a ledger documenting slave emancipations in Burlington County as far back as 1785. Valerie and Charles Mason of Newark, Del., were offering the 250-page book on the eBay auction site, attracting a high bid of about $4,600, before U.S. District Judge Mary Cooper in Trenton, N.J., temporarily halted the sale on Dec. 8. The state Attorney General’s Office, claiming the purportedly official document for public archives, had filed suit earlier in the day to enjoin the Masons from selling. N.J.S.A. 47:3-27, enacted in 1953, empowers the state Bureau of Archives to demand and receive from any person any public record in private possession. Citing that law, Joseph Klett, the acting bureau chief, called the Masons on Dec. 7 to demand that they stop the auction and return the ledger to the state of New Jersey. But Mason refused, threatening that he would “sooner burn the book than return it to the state of New Jersey,” Klett said in a certification. Mason’s lawyer says the quote is accurate, but that his client didn’t really mean it. In his motion for an injunction, Deputy Attorney General John Turi alleged that residents of Burlington County would suffer irreparable harm if the Masons were allowed to sell or dispose of a ledger vital to the county’s history. Cooper had scheduled arguments for last Dec. 15 on the order to show cause on the preliminary injunction, but they were postponed. Defense attorney Michael Modica, a Wilmington, Del., solo practitioner, says he asked for more time to prepare. He also says settlement negotiations have been taking place. Modica says his clients are innocent bona fide purchasers who should be able to keep the ledger or be compensated for it. It is unknown how the record first came into private hands, but the defendants say they found it in an old dresser at a yard sale years ago. “Government property gets disposed of or thrown out all the time,” Modica says. Two weeks before offering the ledger for sale online, the defendants approached state officials about turning over the ledger to the state, but were turned down, Modica says. It was only after the book fetched high bids on eBay that New Jersey officials seemed to take an interest, he says. While Modica confirms that Mason said he would rather burn the book than relinquish it, he says that comment was an idle threat made in anger and that his client has no intention of destroying the book. Klett’s certification says the ledger is probably authentic because images of some pages posted on the Internet match duplicates the state has on microfilm. The original filings of manumissions, or slave releases, are recorded as early as 1785 in Burlington County. “The Ledger is a public record of New Jersey as defined in N.J.S.A. 47:3-16 and is the property of Burlington County,” Turi contended in his court papers. “As it is an historical document, no value can be placed on its worth.” But Modica argues that the ledger’s value has been established by the auction and therefore does not meet the $75,000 jurisdictional minimum for a diversity case in federal court. So, even if the state had a right to retrieve the record, the District Court has no jurisdiction to hear the case, he says. In addition, Modica says, “you’ve got a statute-of-limitations issue. This could have been disposed of 100 years ago. You’ve got to determine when the state lost possession of it.” Furthermore, Modica argues, the Masons had no contact with the state of New Jersey that would subject them to suit.

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