[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]
[BKARTS] Germany demands return of rare book found in the USA
Germany demands return of rare book found here
By Diane Toroian Keaggy
Of the Post-Dispatch
Book dealer Rod Shene purchased a book of 16th-century German drawings and
engravings from another dealer in St. Louis in 2001.
Any of the usual suspects in the book world could have bought the book, but
only Rod Shene recognized the rare quality in the slender volume of old
German drawings. He put down $3,900 for the work and hoped that one day he
would be rewarded for his judgment.
Just another day on the job for Shene, 46, who buys and sells rare books for
a living out of his St. Louis apartment. Though $3,900 certainly represented
a sizable investment, serious dealers such as Shene typically spend up to
$15,000 for a collection.
But there is nothing typical about this book. In the past four years, it has
thrust him into a heated dispute with the German government, threatened to
damage his reputation and robbed him of his time when he needed it most. Yet
the book is the find of his career.
First, the good news: Shene was right about the book?s quality. Last year,
leading auction house Sotheby?s valued the book of drawings at $600,000.
But Shene?s good fortune came with some bad news: The book may have been
stolen from an unlikely victim ? the German government. The state-owned
Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart claims a World War II U.S. Army captain took the
book and others from a castle and eventually deposited them in his Richmond
The museum and German state of Baden-Württemberg are now waging a two-front
war on Shene. First, they have retained attorney Thomas Kline, a celebrity
among Nazi-era art lawyers, to win back the book and learn the fate of any
others still in the St. Louis area. They also have the support of a leading
German diplomat who has warned Shene that the weight of the German
government will be brought to bear on him if he does not cooperate. The
German consulate in New York contacted the U.S. attorney?s office about the
matter. It, in turn, contacted the Department of Homeland Security to see
whether Shene illegally moved stolen merchandise across state lines.
Shene says he has not broken any laws, but the queries still have unnerved
the soft-spoken book dealer.
Now a federal court must decide whether Shene can cash in on his find or
must hand over his fortune.
Even among German-art enthusiasts, Heinrich Vogtherr is an obscure name. A
16th-century woodcutter and painter, Vogtherr created maps and religious
art. Sotheby?s believes Shene?s find is a collection of original drawings by
Vogtherr of nobles from Augsburg.
"The volume of prints and drawings with illustrations for the ?Augsburger
Geschlechterbuch (Augsburg Book of Nobles)? is a fascinating record of an
artist?s working methods in the mid-16th century," according to Dr. Nancy
Bialler, Sotheby?s specialist in Old Master drawings.
"In addition to 53 iron etchings for the ?Augsburger Geschlechterbuch,? all
in early states and many unfinished proofs, there are also 43 original
16th-century drawings. Although there is not universal agreement on who
actually made the drawings, they are clearly associated with Heinrich
Vogtherr the Elder and Hans Burgkmair the Younger, who trained in the
workshop of Hans Burgkmair the Elder, the most prominent artist in Augsburg
at that period."
Werner Schmidt, a spokesman for the German consulate, does not know when the
museum acquired the book but says it was well before the Nazis looted the
private collections of Jewish citizens.
In 1941, the Staatsgalerie hid its collections from the Allies in a castle
in Waldenburg. The books remained in storage until the final months of World
War II, when the 63rd Infantry Division attacked the city. John Hewitt Doty
was a German interpreter for the unit and saved some of the books from a
At least that?s one possible scenario, supported by Doty?s relatives.
Another possibility is that Doty wanted a souvenir, but instead of swiping a
weapon or Nazi flag like many GIs, he grabbed valuable artifacts. Doty,
educated at Amherst College and the University of California at Berkeley,
certainly possessed the sophistication to appreciate such a work of art.
Kline does not know which version is correct, nor does it matter in his case
against Shene. Either way, he argues that the Staatsgalerie never willfully
turned over the item.
"There was extensive looting at these storage points across Germany," Kline
said. "We know what these people suffered, and if someone wanted to take
home a souvenir from these days, it?s not for us to judge them. But the fact
is, it was not within the authority of a soldier or a civilian to seize
Doty never knew the books? value nor did he try to sell them, according to
nephew Clarence Brown of Medford, Ore. Rather, they shared a bookcase with
many early editions of colonial works, Charles Dickens novels and art
catalogs. Doty, who owned a Clayton furnishings firm, died in 1993 of an
aneurysm at age 75.
"He had eclectic tastes and a special appreciation for German culture and
European culture," Brown said. "But he never really talked about the books."
"The boys" make a buy
Brown and another of Doty?s nephews were charged with clearing out Doty?s
Richmond Heights home in 1999, when Doty?s wife, Dorothy, moved to a nursing
facility. They boxed up a number of books, including some German texts, and
took them to book dealer Sheldon Margulis, who bought a dozen or so texts
Later in 2001, he invited some 25 dealers and bibliophiles to his apartment
for one of his irregular auctions. In the kitchen, dealers helped themselves
to trays of food and drink while in the bedroom they perused stacks and
stacks of books. Margulis knew that "the boys" ? dealers Shene, Michael
Hirschfeld and Eugene Hughes ? would be intrigued by four of the German
Unlike some dealers who essentially work as literary day traders ? buying
books on the cheap one day in the hopes of turning a profit the next ? these
dealers function more like academics, traveling to libraries across the
country to learn more about a book?s history and significance. Indeed, Shene
was pursuing his doctorate in English at Washington University when he
decided that the world of rare books would satisfy both his passion for
literature and wish to make a decent living.
Hirschfeld bought one of the texts, and Hughes bought another. But only
Shene expressed serious interest in the book of nobles.
"Part of it was gut instinct," said Shene. "I thought the drawings were
authentic and by the hand of a talented artist."
In addition to the fine drawings, Shene also noticed a German stamp. Could
this book have been stolen from a German museum? He did some preliminary
research and found some evidence that this book may have been sold before
the war. Curators at art museums may spend two months researching a work?s
provenance before a purchase, but Shene could not even establish the book?s
primary artist before the auction.
After he bought the book, he checked the Web sites that track Nazi-era art
to see if it was listed as stolen. It was not. Seven months later he
contacted a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, who coincidentally
had an upcoming meeting with the Staatsgalerie administrator. In a letter to
the Met curator in 2002, the Staatsgalerie official confirmed that the book
once belonged to the museum and wrote, "As I told you, according to German
law we have no possibility to claim such a war loss, but only can ask a
dealer to offer it ?at a reasonable price? to us."
The letter put Shene?s mind at rest. That and the fate of Hirschfeld?s buy,
which was also stamped. Hirschfeld posted his book on eBay and was contacted
by the museum?s curator, who offered to pay full market value for the text.
Hirschfeld had already sold the text for $6,000 to a German buyer, who then
turned it over to the museum.
Confident that he owned the book free and clear, Shene had to decide what to
do next with his find. But first he had to deal with more pressing issues ?
Shene had just been diagnosed with cancer, and his mother, who lived in
Michigan, was terminally ill. Shene did not contact the Staatsgalerie or
Sotheby?s until he could complete his treatments.
Two years later, in the spring of 2004, a healthy Shene delivered the book
to Sotheby?s. He showed Sotheby?s the stamp, and its experts asked Shene for
permission to contact the Staatsgalerie. Shene?s response: "Be my guest."
"And that?s when the trouble starts," said Schmidt, the German consulate
Schmidt has no idea how many German artifacts were taken during World War II
but estimates that 1 million pieces of art and 4.6 million books exist in
Typically, when such an item surfaces, the German institution will offer a
finder?s fee of 10 or 15 percent of the item?s value, and everyone parts
ways satisfied. Rarely do such cases involve the courts or generate much
acrimony. The difference here lies in the enormous chasm between how much
Shene and Sotheby?s say the book is worth ? $600,000 ? and how much the
museum says it?s worth, which Schmidt suggests is $30,000-$40,000. Shene
said he was trying to negotiate a fair price with the museum when it pulled
the plug on the negotiations and insisted on the book?s outright return.
"They were clear that they wanted to buy it back, but once they found out
how valuable it was, they decided, ?Now we?re going to say it?s stolen,?"
said Shene?s attorney, John Cahill of New York, also an expert in art law.
"They want it cheap."
Cahill argues that if the Staatsgalerie is the true owner, it should have
taken steps to retrieve its lost assets.
"In 2001 they find the biggest clue in the world (in the appearance of the
Hirschfeld book) that some of these books might exist. Do they ask, ?Where
did you get it? Are there others?? No, they do nothing," said Cahill. "If
they had any real interest or claim to the book, that?s would they would
have done. At some point, these claims can?t be brought any more, and people
who purchase work innocently should be protected."
It wasn?t long after negotiations stalled that Shene got a call from the
German consulate. Shene, who was shuttling between St. Louis and Michigan to
care for his mother, at first was unnerved. Then he got angry.
"It makes me mad that this issue took as much attention as it did during the
last few months of my mother?s life," Shene said. "I feel they acted
irresponsibly and reprehensibly."
Kline, the attorney for the museum, cannot say why the Staatsgalerie did not
do more to discover the fate of the missing books. But that does not erase
the fact that the Staatsgalerie never relinquished ownership of the book.
That is, in his mind, the core fact of the case. Any other arguments, he
says, are just legal acrobatics.
"What matters is that there is no record this book was ever de-accessed. We
don?t have to prove that it was stolen, only that the museum never gave it
away," Kline said.
Sotheby?s does not know whom to believe. That?s why it has the book under
lock and key until a court decides, a process that could take two years.
But, in a sense, even a victory will come too late for Shene, who lost his
mother in August.
"My mother never really understood what I did for a living," Shene said. "I
wish she could have seen this as an accomplishment before she died instead
of worrying about it."
Rare book?s odyssey
Early to mid-16th century: Artist Heinrich Vogtherr creates book of drawings
of nobles from the German city of Augsburg.
1941: Staatsgalerie of Stuttgart moves some of its collection, including
Vogtherr book, to a castle in Waldenburg.
1945: American forces attack Waldenburg. U.S. Army Capt. John Hewitt Doty
takes the book and others.
1993: Doty dies at 75.
1999: Doty?s relatives sell the book and others to local dealer Sheldon
Margulis for about $900.
2001: Local dealer Rod Shene purchases the book from Margulis for $3,900.
March 2004: Shene takes the book to Sotheby?s. The auction house values it
July 2004: The German consulate contacts Sotheby?s and claims the
Staatsgalerie owns the work.
January 2005: Sotheby?s asks a federal court to determine which party owns
The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist
For all your subscription questions, go to the
Book_Arts-L FAQ and Archive.
Both at: <http://www.philobiblon.com>