Bring your alibis: battle over Eagles’ Hotel California lyrics goes to court

<span>Memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski, left, ex-Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi, center, and rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz sit in court in New York.</span><span>Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP</span>
Memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski, left, ex-Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi, center, and rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz sit in court in New York.Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP
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Welcome to the Hotel California … the New York criminal complaint reissue.

The trial of three men accused of a conspiracy involving the possession of the original handwritten lyrics for the Eagles’ smash hit Hotel California has unfolded with the band’s longtime manager describing a long effort to recover the work – longer even than the track’s epic guitar solos.

Irving Azoff, manager of the American rock band that shot to stardom in the 1970s, told a court in Manhattan on Wednesday that the group had tried to recover roughly 100 pages of allegedly stolen song lyrics from the Hotel California album written by the Eagles co-founders Don Henley and Glenn Frey. They were trying to get them back from the rock journalist Ed Sanders, who had been hired by the band to write a biography of the group more than 40 years ago.

Related: The Eagles score biggest-selling album of all time in US, surpassing Thriller

Sanders had apparently taken the yellow legal pads, on which were handwritten now-legendary lyrics such as “you can check out any time you like but you can never leave”, from Henley’s Malibu storage barn, the court heard.

But in a twist as enigmatic as elements of the band’s best-known song, it’s not Sanders who is on trial.

The three defendants are rare-books collector Glenn Horowitz, memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski, and former Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi. They are being tried before a New York state supreme court judge, without a jury, on charges they knowingly possessed and tried to sell the lyrics despite knowing, according to the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, “that had been authored by and stolen from founding Eagles member Don Henley”.

The men were arrested for allegedly conspiring to sell the lyrics without the band’s consent and are accused of attempting to obscure how they obtained the papers.

Prosecutors will attempt to demonstrate that the lyrics were stolen, allegedly by Sanders, although he is not charged, and also lay out what the three indicted men did with the notebooks that came into their possession.

Sanders’ draft of the Eagles’ “official biography” was rejected by band members, who called it “highly disappointing”, and was never published, the court heard.

That started a long dispute with Sanders over the book, with the band management repeatedly facing demands from Sanders for more money above the $25,000 fee they had agreed to. In one letter, Sanders wrote to tell the band that it was unfair that “I live a modest middle-class lifestyle while those I write about have pylons firmly planted in mountains of moolah.”

Azoff estimated that the band ended up paying Sanders $75,000 for his work but ultimately came to feel they were being extorted when Sanders instead said he would publish an account of the Eagles breakup in the early 1980s. “A decision was made not to be extorted by Sanders,” Azoff told the judge on Wednesday.

The manager’s account so far, including colorful details such as how he had to rent a separate house in Beverly Hills for Henley and Frey to write because Henley didn’t like all the empty beer cans and cigarette butts at Frey’s place, is a backdrop to the main thrust of the criminal complaint.

Lawyers for three defendants said that their clients had no knowledge that the memorabilia could have been acquired through theft. “Sanders is a major respected literary figure who served as the Eagles’ authorized biographer, of course they readily provided him with documents,” Horowitz’s defense attorney Jonathan Bach said.

Kosinski’s defense attorney, Matthew Laroche, argued the case should never have been brought due to a lack of evidence and would call for it to be dismissed once the prosecution rested. Inciardi’s defense attorney, Stacey Richman, later told the court: “The people have accused three innocent men of a crime that never occurred.”

If convicted, Horowitz, Inciardi and Kosinski face up to four years in prison. All three have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

Henley, who is expected to testify on Monday, has said he discovered some of pages of lyrics were being sold online in 2012, purchased them himself for $8,500, and then filed a stolen goods report with the DA.

The case was brought in New York in 2022 after Kosinski’s New Jersey home was raided by district attorney investigators in 2019. His defense team claims they employed “strong-arm tactics … wholly inappropriate in the context of this case”.

More lyrics from the contested legal pads were offered for private sale at Sotheby’s in 2016. The auctioneer agreed to cancel the sale, but did not return the disputed items, when it heard their provenance was clouded.

Prosecutor Nicholas Penfold claimed in the court on Thursday that Sanders had been coached to say that the lyrics may have been abandoned in a concert dressing room or were given to him by Frey, who died in 2016.

Penfold said he would show the court evidence that Sanders, who sold the lyrics to Horowitz, wrote a letter to the dealer saying Henley “might conceivably be upset” about the sales. That, the prosecutor said, cast doubt on whether Sanders believed he owned the lyrics and that Horowitz had “ignored red flags”.

In bringing the case two years ago, Bragg said “New York is a world-class hub for art and culture, and those who deal cultural artifacts must scrupulously follow the law.” The statement implicitly linked the lyrics prosecution to broader efforts by the office to return looted antiquities to their countries of origin.

But lawyers for the three men argue that bringing the case is “unreasonable” since authorities are bringing the case six years after they became aware of the allegations and, according to Kosinski’s defense, “the allegations concern conduct that took place nearly 50 years ago.”

The case continues.