Steal Das Book

Rod Shene paid a paltry few grand for a volume worth $500,000 or more. Only one hitch: The German government wants it back.

Our story begins in the waning months of World War II, when curators from the Württemberg State Gallery in Stuttgart began to worry about the works they had stored in a castle in Neuenstein.

Much of the collection had been handed down from the Dukes of Württemberg, who ruled the region from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century. As many as 10,000 pieces were stored in various hiding places throughout Germany. But in 1944, with Stuttgart a likely target of Allied bombs, the curators decided to move the cache to the castle at Waldenburg, a tiny village perched high on a hill about eight kilometers away. They were in such a rush that only paintings and portfolios were inventoried, and even that had to be done hastily. It is said that the citizens of Waldenburg formed a human chain to transport the books and artworks, one at a time, up the steep hill to the castle.

Then the bombs fell.

The price was right: Rod Shene paid $3,800 for the Augsburg book — and he won't give it up without a fight.
The price was right: Rod Shene paid $3,800 for the Augsburg book — and he won't give it up without a fight.
Local book dealer Michael Hirschfeld purchased two books from the Doty estate. Hirschfeld flipped his on eBay for about $4,00 apiece.
Local book dealer Michael Hirschfeld purchased two books from the Doty estate. Hirschfeld flipped his on eBay for about $4,00 apiece.

In April 1945, convinced that Nazis were hiding in Waldenburg, Allied forces pounded the hilltop until the village and the castle were reduced to rubble. Homeless and desperate in the aftermath, the villagers burned anything they could find in order to stay warm — including the treasures of the Württemberg Gallery.

A total of 55 paintings and 69 portfolios, each containing several prints and drawings, plus an untold number of books, had been hidden at Waldenburg. When a curator conducted an inventory after the war, he concluded that the entire collection had gone up in flames.

In the spring of 2001, two men walked into A Collector's Bookshop on Manchester Road in Maplewood carrying boxes of old books. They were clearing out their uncle's estate, the men explained to owner Sheldon Margulis, who combed through the boxes and plucked ten or twelve he thought he could sell. Four of those volumes were very old, and Margulis set them aside.

"I counted the illustrations, just as I had been taught to count the illustrations in older children's books," recalls Margulis, who is now semi-retired. In one of the books, Margulis remembers counting 98 illustrations, many of which depicted knights.

The men said their uncle, John Doty, had acquired the books after World War II in Germany, where he'd served as a captain in the U.S. Army. Margulis told them he had an auction coming up and offered to sell the items on commission. But the men said they were leaving town that weekend, so he cut them a check for $775 and told them where he thought they might be able to sell the rest of the books.

Not long afterward, Margulis held one of his not-infrequent Sunday auctions, invitation-only affairs at his apartment in University City that were attended by a cadre of regional book dealers. He'd arrange the books on tables in the living room and bedroom, and his guests would spend the morning and afternoon eating, drinking and bidding.

Most of the local rare-book crowd was there, Margulis says, including Michael Hirschfeld, owner of the Hirschfeld Galleries, which at that time was located on Euclid Avenue in the Central West End; and Eugene Hughes, whose shop, Antiquarian Bookseller, is on De Mun Avenue at Clayton Road.

One local rare-book aficionado who couldn't make it to the auction was Rod Shene.

Margulis says he knew Hirschfeld, Hughes and Shene would take an interest in the books he'd bought from the Doty estate, and he was equally certain that they'd do any necessary research to establish their value. "Rod was something of an expert on older books," Margulis says. "Particularly Michael and Eugene were experts on older books."

In a floppy haircut and sneakers, Shene (pronounced "Shane") looks younger than his 49 years. Even at that, he's one of the younger members of the small circle of local book scouts who prowl the estate-sale circuit in search of overlooked curios they can scoop up at bargain prices and flip for a profit to collectors or fellow dealers. (Sometimes rivalries in that world are cordial, sometimes not. Notes Hughes, "Occasionally we buy from each other. We'd also like to throw each other off a cliff.")

Shene's infatuation with rare books had been born in the 1980s, while he was studying at Washington University. He was pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing and a Ph.D. in English, but although he'd end up with a master's in English, he eventually came to terms with the fact that he was a terrible academic — ill-suited to finishing what he started. At the same time, a passion for literary and cultural ephemera made him a whiz at spotting biblio-treasures.

And book scouting paid better than part-time teaching.

One of Shene's early finds was a set of Depression-era promotional posters for the Works Progress Administration that the Saint Louis Art Museum was unloading. He paid maybe $10 for each of four posters that today might be worth a few hundred dollars apiece. He says he hits on something special once or twice a year — like the time he bought a set of Oscar Wilde works and a letter from Wilde fell out of one of the books. Just this past spring he made a $1,200 sale on a pamphlet that he'd picked up at the Greater St. Louis Book Fair for $10. Shene's single biggest deal to date: $50,000 for a title he won't name. Nor will he divulge how much he paid to acquire it. Discretion is part of the etiquette of the trade. "I would embarrass the dealer who sold it to me," Shene says. "I paid considerable money for it, but I made a lot of money on it."

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