Dealer, museum battle over book of drawings

The Charlotte Observer 27 January 2005
Diane Toroian Keaggy

ST. LOUIS - Any of the usual suspects in the book world could have purchased 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 one day he would be rewarded for his judgment.
Just another day on the job for the 46-year-old Shene, who buys and sells rare books out of St. Louis apartment for a living. 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. Anyone who has purchased a work of art, trolled an estate sale or bought a lottery ticket dreams about that sort of payday, and Shene is no different.

But Shene's good fortune came with some bad news. Shene also learned the book may have been stolen from an unlikely victim - the German government. The state-owned Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart claims a World War II Army captain took the book and others from a castle and eventually deposited them in his Richmond Heights, Mo., home.

The museum and German state of Baden-Wurttemberg 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 St. Louis. 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 and private 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," Bialler said.

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.

Flash-forward 400 years to 1941, when 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 fire.

At least that's one possible scenario, supported by Doty's family members. Another possibility is that Doty was a souvenir hunter who, instead of swiping a weapon or Nazi flag like many GIs, grabbed a priceless artifact. Doty, educated at Amherst College and the University of California, 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 the Staatsgalerie never willfully turned over the item.

"There was extensive looting at these storage points across Germany," said Kline. "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 cultural property."

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 book case with many early editions of Colonial works, Charles Dickens novels and art catalogs. Doty, who owned a furnishings firm, died in 1993 of an aneurysm at the age of 75.

"He had eclectic tastes and a special appreciation for German culture and European culture," said Brown. "But he never really talked about the books."

Brown and another one 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 for $900.

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 "the boys" - dealers Shene, Michael Hirschfeld and Eugene Hughes - would be intrigued by four of the German texts.

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 Ph.D. 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, Hughes bought another, but only Shene expressed serious interest in the book of nobles.

"Part of it was gut instinct," Shene said. "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 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 purchased 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 2002 letter to the Met curator, the Staatsgalerie official confirmed 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, however, 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," Schmidt said.

Tales like Shene's are growing more and more common as the nation's World War II veterans age and die. A relative finds a decorative box or small painting in the basement only to learn the artifact belongs to a German museum. Schmidt has no idea how many German artifacts were taken during World War II but estimates 1 million pieces of art and 4.6 million books exist in Russia alone.

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 New York attorney John Cahill, 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," Cahill said. "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 anymore 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 here and Michigan to care for his mother, first was unnerved and then turned 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," said Shene. "I feel they acted irresponsibly and reprehensibly."

Kline 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 deaccessed. 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," said Shene. "I wish she could have seen this as an accomplishment before she died instead of worrying about it."
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