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Margaret Mitchell's papers spark ownership row

A batch of purported business correspondence belonging to the Gone With the Wind author is now the prize in a legal battle.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2006 17:47 IST

A batch of purported business correspondence belonging to Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell is now the prize in a legal battle.

No one who has seen the documents is talking, and the Atlanta History Center, which is holding them until a judge decides who they belong to, won't say for certain if they are authentic- though the centre has suggested in court papers it believes they are. A lawyer for the bank that is executor of Mitchell's late brother Stephens' estate wants the materials returned to the estate, while a rare book dealer in New York and a Connecticut collector want to sell them.

There could be a lot of money at stake. Just how much, though, also is unclear.

"We think that it is important to history and our society to preserve the historical record, whether it's about people or a place," said Mary Ellen Brooks, director of the rare book and manuscript library at the University of Georgia that holds some of Mitchell's other writings.

According to court papers, Philip B. Battles says his father unwittingly acquired the letters and documents relating to the publishing efforts of the 1930s book and production of the movie version when he bought a file cabinet at an auction of abandoned office equipment in Atlanta in the 1970s. How the material ended up in the cabinet, which court papers say was constructed in the "mid-20th century," is unclear.

Clarke Gable (left) meets Margaret Mitchell at the premiere of the film Gone With the Wind

The father never did anything with the documents, Battles says in a March 9, 2005, notarised letter in which he asserts the materials are authentic.

Battles says the cabinet passed to him after his parents died, and last year he sold the documents for an undisclosed price to John Reznikoff, a Wilton, Connecticut, collector. Court papers say Reznikoff and New York rare book dealer Glenn Horowitz both claim to own the correspondence and together they tried to sell it to the Atlanta History Center earlier this year.

The Atlanta Historical Society oversees both the history centre and the Margaret Mitchell House and Museum.

In July, Horowitz sent the correspondence to the history centre's offices so it could review the materials and decide whether it wanted to buy them. The following month, the centre received a letter from lawyer Gregory Hanthorn, on behalf of SunTrust Bank, demanding return of the documents to Stephens Mitchell's estate. Hanthorn said in the letter that except for the papers donated to the University of Georgia, Stephens Mitchell did not authorise the transfer of her business correspondence to anyone. Stephens Mitchell inherited his sister's writings when she died in 1949. The history centre filed a motion on August 31 asking a Fulton County Superior Court judge to determine who owns the documents. As of Wednesday, no hearings had been scheduled and no action taken by the court, according to the case docket.

The Atlanta History Center plans to hold on to the documents until the dispute is resolved. Spokeswoman Hillary Hardwick said Tuesday that the centre does not claim ownership of the documents, nor has it paid any money for them.

Hanthorn declined to comment, and Reznikoff did not return repeated calls. Battles could not be reached for comment.

First Published: Sep 18, 2006 13:34 IST