A criminal case involving handwritten lyrics to the classic rock song Hotel California and other Eagles favourites has gone to trial in New York.

Three men are accused of scheming to thwart band co-founder Don Henley’s efforts to reclaim the allegedly ill-gotten documents.

The trial concerns about 100 pages of drafts of the words to songs from the 1976 release Hotel California, which is the third-biggest selling album ever in the US.

Rare books dealer Glenn Horowitz, former Rock and Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi, and memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski face charges including conspiracy to possess stolen property.

Former Rock & Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi, right, memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski, centre, and rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz in court
Former Rock & Roll Hall of Fame curator Craig Inciardi, right, memorabilia seller Edward Kosinski, centre, and rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz in court (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

“The defendants were not businessmen acting in good faith, but criminal actors,” Manhattan assistant district attorney Nicholas Penfold said in his opening. He said they “deceived and manipulated to try to frustrate” Henley’s efforts to recover manuscripts that were rightfully his.

The men, all well established in the collectables world, have pleaded not guilty. Their lawyers have said the case “alleges criminality where none exists and unfairly tarnishes the reputations of well-respected professionals”.

The documents include lyrics-in-development for the songs Life In The Fast Lane, New Kid In Town and Hotel California – the more than six-minute-long, somewhat mysterious musical tale of the goings-on at an inviting, decadent but ultimately dark place where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

If scorned by some as an overexposed artefact of the 1970s, the Grammy-winning song is still a touchstone on classic rock radio and many personal playlists. The entertainment data company Luminate counted more than 220 million streams and 136,000 radio plays of Hotel California in the US last year.

The case was brought in 2022, a decade after some of the pages began popping up for auction and Henley took notice – and took umbrage. He bought back a bit of the material for 8,500 dollars but also reported the documents stolen, according to court filings.

At the time, the lyrics sheets were in the hands of Kosinski and Inciardi, who had bought them from Horowitz. He had purchased them in 2005 from Ed Sanders, a writer and 1960s counterculture figure who worked with the Eagles on a band biography that was shelved in the early 1980s.

Sanders, who also co-founded the avant-garde rock group the Fugs, is not charged in the case.

Sanders told Horowitz in 2005 that Henley’s assistant had posted any documents he wanted for the biography, though the writer worried that Henley “might conceivably be upset” if they were sold, according to emails recounted in the indictment.

But once Henley’s lawyers began asking questions, Horowitz, Inciardi and Kosinski started manoeuvring to make up and disseminate a legally viable ownership history for the manuscripts, Manhattan prosecutors say.

According to the indictment, Inciardi and Horowitz floated evolving accounts of how Sanders obtained the documents. The explanations ranged over the next five years from Sanders finding them abandoned in a backstage dressing room to the writer getting them from Eagles co-founder Glenn Frey, who died in 2016.

Rare book dealer Glenn Horowitz leaves the court during a break in proceedings
Rare book dealer Glenn Horowitz leaves the court during a break in proceedings (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Emails show some input and assent from Sanders, but he also apparently objected at least to the backstage-salvage story. In messages that did not include him, Horowitz wrote about getting Sanders’ “’explanation’ shaped into a communication” and giving him “gentle handling” and assurances “that he’s not going to the can,” the indictment says.

The indictment does not show Kosinki participating in the back-and-forth with Sanders. But Kosinski forwarded one of the various explanations to Henley’s lawyer, then told an auction house that the rocker had “no claim” to the manuscripts, the indictment says. He also asked the auctioneers not to tell potential bidders about the ownership dispute.

The defendants’ lawyers have said that Sanders had legal possession of the documents, and so did the men who subsequently bought them. They have indicated that they plan to question how clearly Henley remembers his dealings with Sanders and the lyric sheets at a time when the rock star was living “life in the fast lane” himself.

The defendants decided last week to forgo a jury, so Judge Curtis Farber will decide the verdict.