Americans return priceless books to Germany

Duluth News Tribune 26 May 2005
Philip Dine

WASHINGTON - (KRT) - In a formal yet joyous ceremony, Germany regained possession of four priceless old books that had been missing for 60 years.

In the final days of World War II, the books were retrieved from a burning castle in Stuttgart, Germany, by an Army captain from St. Louis, John Hewitt Doty. They were returned to German possession Thursday by two of Doty's nephews, who did so without compensation.
Shortly before champagne glasses clinked at the Germany Embassy, a phalanx of German officials from Washington and the homeland, international book sleuths and attorneys and German museum curators from Stuttgart saluted the two nephews.

"We appreciate the gesture you're doing here, because for us the objective of getting historic objects back to their rightful place is very important," said Peter Gottwald, Germany's deputy ambassador to the United States. "We know how many objects were displaced by the war."

In response, Peter Brown, one of Doty's nephews, lauded the German officials and the lawyers for not jumping to conclusions that his uncle had stolen the books in April 1945.

"The lawyers could have made this very adversarial, but they didn't," Brown said. "And I appreciate that the German officials were willing to withhold judgment on how he came by the books. It mattered to me because my uncle was the picture of rectitude and propriety."

In letters to his wife during the war, Doty, who worked in intelligence with the 63rd Infantry Division, "expressed distress" when Allied actions would lead to destruction of historic objects, Brown said.

The books, in gorgeous condition considering their age and what they have been through, consist of two separate editions of Aesop's Fables, Das Theater - on operatic sets and costumes - and a fairy tale containing original wood cuts.

Brown, who lives in Maine, was accompanied Thursday by his brother, Clarence, of Oregon.

The two had been called to St. Louis in 2001 after Doty's death by his widow, Dorothy, to help divvy up their uncle's possessions, including antique furniture, rugs - and books. Their mother was Doty's only sibling, and her six children were Doty's closest relatives.

It wasn't the first time Peter Brown had seen the books. In the late 1950s, he was a student at Princeton, and he and his uncle - the only college-educated people in the family at the time - were close. So Brown would often visit his uncle and aunt's home, where Doty's study, full of bookshelves, had a pullout couch and doubled as the guest room.

"We're talking about books that would get your attention. Among the novels and other books, you'd see these volumes bound in leather, from the 14th, 15th, 16th centuries," Brown said.

Because the couple had no children, his wife asked the Brown brothers to divide the items up among the three nephews and three nieces. The two made six piles, but they sold some of the books that seemed valuable for $750 to a St. Louis dealer, Sheldon Margulis, to help their aunt pay to ship the other items.

Three books from Stuttgart, while old, weren't as ancient, and Peter Brown - unaware that their value was enhanced by the original artwork in them - gave one to his daughter in Colorado and two to his son in Maryland.

The fourth book returned Thursday had been retrieved after international book and arts sleuth Willi Korte, an attorney who specializes in this sort of thing, traveled to St. Louis on Sunday and urged a woman who had it to "do the right thing." The next day, she agreed, Korte said.

Another book Doty brought home from the war and later sold to Margulis, and which ended up with St. Louis rare book dealer Rod Shene, remains the subject of litigation in federal court in New York City. And there are a few other books whose Stuttgart origins are under investigation, including at least one in St. Louis and another in Miami.

But on Thursday, all attention - and considerable good cheer - was focused on the return of the four books to Germany from St. Louis, which coincidentally is Stuttgart's sister city and whose museum has one of the country's largest and oldest collection of books.

Thomas Kline, a Washington lawyer who has worked with the German state of Baden-Wuertemberg to retrieve books, told the Brown brothers: "I've been doing this since 1989, and it's never been this gracious or this easy. You two have a lot to be proud of. You really have made this pleasant."

Ulrike Gauss, senior curator at the Stuttgart museum, offered the Browns a guided tour, because, she said, their actions had allowed Germany to "bring together what belonged together."
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