That famed, recently rediscovered "Joan Anderson letter" written by Neal Cassady is now the subject of a battle between the estates of Jack Kerouac and Cassady and the woman who found the letter in her father's Oakland home. As the Chronicle reports, that woman, L.A.-based performance artist Jean Spinosa, was hoping to auction the letter on December 17 and maintains that she has the right to do so.

The thing is, this as big a treasure as you can find in American letters, and could be worth well more than the $500,000 previously estimated by the auctioneer.

A lot of money could be at stake here, because the original scroll of Kerouac’s “On the Road” sold for $2.4 million in 2001, and now comes the letter that inspired Kerouac’s classic. Given Cassady’s stature as not only the main character of “On the Road” but also a key figure in Ken Kesey’s “Merry Pranksters,” it is possible that the letter could be worth more than the scroll.

And in addition to the physical 18-page document itself — which Jami Cassady, middle child of Neal and Carolyn Cassady, says should be called a "manuscript" and not a "letter" — the Cassady estate can claim ownership of the contents of the letter for publication. As Jami Cassady grandly puts it, "To call it a letter is like calling 'Naked Lunch’ a lunch.”

After SFist published the story about the letter, we received a note from a local Kerouac fan who noted that the Cassady estate could have a claim, and that Kerouac heirs would likely come after their claim to the letter itself. Courts have previously ruled that ownership of letters resides with the person to whom they're addressed, but the situation here is complicated further by the passage of time — some 63 years — since the letter was in Kerouac's possession and when it was rediscovered in Spinosa's late father's home.

Per the tipster:

A writer who submits a manuscript to a publisher does not surrender ownership of that manuscript to the publishing company absent a specific agreement to the contrary. The fact that the letter was found in the publishing company's archives does not divest the Kerouac estate of ownership. The passage of time might affect ownership claims, but the letter was believed to have been lost, mainly because Alan Ginsberg lied. Ginsberg was said to have retracted the lie in the 1990's, but no one has been able to find evidence of the retraction. So the passage of time, commonly called the statute of limitations, would begin to run from the public announcement that the letter had been found.

Spinosa and her auctioneer, Profiles in History, did not likely go public with the letter without doing some due diligence about her rights of ownership. But yes, this is a complicated one.

Look for a judge to possibly issue an injunction to stop the auction, pending a decision about all this.