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.

Rod Shene

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.

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."

Shene was a regular at Margulis' auctions, but when the Doty books were offered he had a conflicting engagement, a sale in Chicago. Still, he made a point to stop by and look at the selection, and one of the volumes caught his eye.

It was about the size of a standard letter-size sheet of paper, maybe a little narrower. Bound in smooth calfskin, it contained 53 prints and 43 drawings that depicted nobles in costume. There was no title page, but someone had written notes in German on the front pages and in the margins. Shene recognized the name "Burgkmair" as a contemporary of the renowned printmaker Albrecht Dürer.

But what caught his eye was the fact that some of the drawings and prints were mirror images of each other, indicating that the drawings had been used to execute the prints. Shene knew that having a printmaker's original handiwork presented side-by-side with the final product made the item more valuable.

Shene took the book home for a night and asked a friend and the friend's German girlfriend to help him research it on the Internet. They had no luck tracking down the artist's name or where the prints had been published. The back of each leaf bore a small stamp: a crown surrounded by the words "KON. KUPFERSTICHCABINET STUTTGART."

Kön. is an abbreviation of königliches, meaning "royal"; kupferstichkabinett (the modern spelling of the word) means "print room."

Shene knew the stamp indicated that the book might at one time have been part of a museum collection. He found a Web site that referred to two sales that had been held at the Kupferstichcabinet Stuttgart, one in the late nineteenth century, the other during the 1920s. He took this as a clue to the book's provenance, and an indication of when it might have come on the open market.

Further Internet sleuthing yielded nothing more about Kupferstichcabinet Stuttgart.

Shene decided to bid on the book based on his confidence that the prints and drawings were related. "My guess was that these weren't hand-colored plates, but original drawings — because they were mirror images," he explains.

Shene arranged with Margulis to bid by phone. At the agreed-upon hour, he phoned Margulis at his apartment, only to learn he had a rival in the bidding, a collector friend of Margulis.

The price kept going up, but Shene kept bidding. At $3,800 his foe backed down.

Hirschfeld and Hughes bought books from the Doty estate that day as well. Hughes bought one, Hirschfeld, two. They paid $1,000 to $1,500 apiece.

Of his own purchase, Shene says today, "It was gut instinct and a $4,000 gamble."

Shene tends not to hold onto merchandise for long. He doesn't maintain a retail space, preferring to work out of his condo on Northwood Avenue, not far from Eugene Hughes' shop.

But life took a stressful turn in the fall of 2001. The market for luxury goods, including rare books, bottomed out after 9/11. Shene's main distraction that fall, though, was his mother's breast cancer, and the monthly trips he made to Michigan to visit her.

Still, he had to figure out what exactly he'd bought from Sheldon Margulis. The margin notes were all he had to work with. He researched the other name he could make out, "Vogtherr," and learned that the artist had illustrated books during the sixteenth century. He searched out Heinrich Vogtherr in the National Union Catalog, a massive bibliography of every book catalogued by the Library of Congress and other American and Canadian libraries. One of the titles, Augsburger Geschlechterbuch (English translation: The Augsburg Book of Genealogy), sounded a lot like the volume he'd bought. The Newberry Library, an independent research repository in Chicago, owned it.

Shene drove to Chicago.

He harbored no illusions that the Chicago library might possess a duplicate copy of the book he'd purchased. "At that time I was just really concerned with seeing if the plates and drawings appeared in this book," he says. And they did. "It was exciting, because my assumption that these were the drawings was reinforced by what the curator had to say. It was exciting both from a scholarly pursuit of the object and a financial pursuit of the object."

Paul Crenshaw, assistant professor of art history and archaeology at Washington University, says Shene's gut feeling about the drawings was dead-on. "What that indicates, then, is it came out of the workshop of either the artist, or more likely, the print publisher," Crenshaw says of Shene's find. "They're sort of special," the professor adds of the drawings. "They're the kernels of the process."

The fact that the prints were made with iron plates also enhanced the Augsburg book's value; that method had been short-lived, because printmakers had soon realized steel was far more durable.

But Shene failed to strike gold when it came to the artist's identity. The "Burgkmair" mentioned in the notes was not Hans Burgkmair the Elder, who's known for a series of 135 prints in the Triumph of Maximilian, commissioned by Maximilian I and overseen by Albrecht Dürer. Rather, it was Burgkmair the Younger, who'd collaborated with Vogtherr, a relative unknown.

Not many scholars study Vogtherr, but Crenshaw, who teaches a course on Northern Renaissance art and studies seventeenth-century Dutch art, says plenty are studying the period. Vogtherr was known for his anti-papal images in support of the Protestant revolution. From an art historian's perspective, Crenshaw says, "Anyone working in that time period becomes of interest," owing to Dürer.

Crenshaw is not familiar with the Augsburg Book of Genealogy, but he says it sounds like a typical product of the sixteenth century, when publishers would compile images of the local nobility, then sell the prints to other noble houses and to the middle class. "It was a way of spreading the knowledge and renown of local political figures," the professor explains.

Armed with some knowledge about the book's creators, Shene set about tracking down the kupferstichcabinet. In 2002, a friend of a friend put him in touch with Perrin Stein, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. When he told Stein about the words stamped on his book, she instantly recognized the name. Königliches Kupferstichcabinet Stuttgart, she told Shene, was the predecessor of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, the state-owned museum and main arts institution of southern Germany. Coincidentally, the curator of German and Netherlandish prints and drawings from that museum would be visiting the Met soon. She offered to tell the curator about the book and forward his response to Shene.

The message Stein relayed from curator Hans-Martin Kaulbach was encouraging. Noting that he had no legal claim to ownership of the book, Kaulbach requested more information about the object in order to check it against his inventory. He would reiterate this request in subsequent e-mails to Stein that the Met curator duly forwarded to Shene.

"As I told you, according to German law we have no possibility to claim such a war loss," Kaulbach wrote in July 2002, "but only can ask a dealer to offer it 'at a reasonable price' to us. You surely understand that it is crucial for us to know, which of the many missing books it is.

"So I hope it is not too much that I ask you now to contact the dealer again, and tell him my suggestion."

In the meantime, Shene had been trying to get a handle on how much the Augsburger Geschlechterbuch might be worth. It was no easy task. Most of his contacts were book dealers, who had thrown out numbers from $100,000 to $800,000. "I wasn't talking to anyone who dealt with Northern European drawings from this period," Shene says.

In 2001 he'd placed the book with a dealer in Philadelphia, who offered it to the Library of Congress. They didn't bite. In 2004 Shene arranged to meet with Nancy Bialler, a well-known expert in the work of old masters at Sotheby's in New York.

Bialler gave Shene a pre-sale estimate of $600,000 on the spot. Later that same day, she called him, saying she'd spoken with her colleagues in London, who were very excited about the book. Northern European drawings from the mid-1500s are quite rare, they said, and predicted it would fetch considerably more than $600,000 at auction.

Sotheby's slated the Augsburger Geschlechterbuch for a July 2004 sale in London. Shene shipped her the book. "I had a great two or three weeks," he says.

Then the Germans laid claim to his find.

Stuttgart is now a city of 600,000, and home to the corporate headquarters of Daimler-Chrysler. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, too, has come a long way since the dark days of World War II. The museum is on par with the Tate in London, Kunsthalle Basel in Switzerland or the Kunsthaus Zurich, says Joachim Uhlmann, cultural minister for the state of Baden-Württemberg, which owns and operates the museum. Uhlmann, who is overseeing the state's pursuit of the Augsburg book, agreed to answer questions about the museum submitted in writing.

Staatsgalerie Stuttgart's permanent collection includes European art from the fourteenth century to the present, along with international avant-garde art, post-1945. The works are housed in two buildings, the Alte Staatsgalerie, reconstructed after World War II, and the Neue Staatsgalerie, a postmodern addition that opened in the 1980s.

Uhlmann says the museum's expenditures in the fiscal year 2007 amount to about 8 million, or about $10.8 million. For comparison's sake, the Saint Louis Art Museum is budgeted to spend $26.3 million this year, $7.3 million of that on its collection, exhibits and educational programs.

In other words, the German museum isn't likely to find it easy to compete for pieces on the open market.

Regardless, any museum that has lost part of its collection will go to great lengths to retrieve it, says Willi Korte, an art investigator who is working alongside Washington, D.C.-based attorney Thomas Kline in Baden-Württemberg's efforts to return the Augsburg book to Germany.

"They practically never see an alternative to returning the item back to the collection, particularly if it has been a part of the collection for a long period of time," says Korte, who has spent more than twenty years searching for lost art on behalf of German institutions.

"I remember I recovered a pile of totally unusable prints and drawings due to water damage — just a pile of stuff sticking together," Korte says. "And it didn't make any difference. I always experience curators as being very particular about bringing back what was once part of the collection, even if it's not presentable anymore."

Korte's colleague, attorney Thomas Kline, is equally committed to the pursuit.

Kline came into the field of art law in 1989, when the firm he was working with represented the Republic of Cyprus. That nation was attempting to recover some Byzantine mosaics that had been removed from a church in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus and were in the possession of an Indiana art dealer. Though Kline had barely two months to prepare his case, Cyprus prevailed. The judge ruled the art dealer hadn't tried hard enough to ascertain the history of the mosaics.

Today Kline levels a similar charge at Rod Shene, contending that the book dealer could easily have traced the Augsburg book's museum stamps to Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and returned the volume to its rightful owner.

Generally speaking, Kline asserts, people who handle art and antiques don't do enough provenance research, or due diligence. "What you're talking about is in my view the most important issue in the art market today: the lack of standards for acting in good faith," says Kline.

While Korte attempted to retrace the Augsburg book's journey from Germany to John Doty's collection and beyond, Kline took statements from book dealers and from Doty's relatives. One of Doty's nephews, Clarence Brown, says Kline and Korte visited his home in Medford, Oregon, to examine books that he'd kept from his uncle's collection.

"They were all real nice folks," Brown recalls. "After we looked at the books, we went wine-tasting."

Once Korte knew that the Augsburg book had come on the market in St. Louis, he came to town in search of other books that might have gone missing from the museum's collection. He visited the church in Clayton where Doty had donated some books and tracked down Doty's far-flung relatives. Brown says Korte found him after pulling Doty's will from probate court and locating one of his brothers, who has an uncommon first name, in Mount Shasta, California.

Korte and Kline also pieced together the history of Doty's military service, which they say places him at Waldenburg at the time of the Allied bombing.

U.S. Army Captain John Hewitt Doty was the sort of person who would appreciate illustrations of nobles in costume. Peter Brown, the eldest of Doty's nephews, says his uncle enjoyed dressing dolls when he was a little boy. Though Doty's classmates made fun of him for it, his interest in finery endured.

As an adult Doty coupled his refined taste with a commanding presence. An affected British accent completed the picture. "He had a stentorian voice," says Brown, a retired schoolteacher who lives in Topsfield, Maine. "Just with his voice, he could cut you off at the knees if he wanted to."

Doty had earned a bachelor's degree in English at Amherst College in Massachusetts and studied philosophy for a year at Stanford when he enlisted in the army in 1942 at age 24. Quickly rising to the rank of captain, he taught aerial-photograph interpretation stateside, then served in France and Germany with an intelligence unit and with the headquarters of the 63rd Infantry Division.

Doty earned a Bronze Star in June 1945. In a routine evaluation that summer, his commanding officer, Major General Louis E. Hibbs, commented, "This officer is the true specialist, in that he drives right into and through his work with complete absorption. His photo interpretations have been most helpful to the division especially through the Seigfried [sic] line."

Doty also spoke a little German, and according to records attorney Thomas Kline obtained, he was the officer in charge of prisoner interrogation in 1945 at the time the 63rd Infantry laid waste to Waldenburg.

After the war Doty returned to California, where he spent five years in the Army Officer Reserve Corps. Then he went to work for a furniture company as a sales representative covering the Midwest. He settled in St. Louis, where he married late in life. Peter Brown says Doty and his wife, Dorothy, would take trips collecting antiques. He had a bottle collection, a pewter collection and myriad objects that could be used to make lamps.

When Doty retired, he and a partner opened a custom lamp shop in downtown Clayton. The Hewitt & Hitchcock Gallery became known as an indispensable source for decorators looking to create a singular touch. "That was right up his alley," says Brown. "He had his opinion and it was pretty firm. It helped him in business, because when he would make a recommendation, it was the last word: 'Don't even think of not having a silk shade.'"

The shop, now owned by interior designer Madelyn Lane, still sells $1,200 lamps and carries only hand-sewn shades. "He was a quality person," Lane says of Doty, who died in 1993.

Brown says he got along with his rigid, tradition-minded uncle because Doty offered moral support while he worked his way through college at Princeton in the 1960s. Doty knew what he was going through, Brown says, because his own father had managed a shoe store while he was away at Amherst. Doty would even send Brown the occasional $25 check. The first came with a note, the nephew recalls: "This is for some necessary luxuries."

Doty was a raconteur and a well-educated conversationalist, but he was not chatty. So the time when Brown was staying at Doty's duplex in Richmond Heights and asked how he'd come by the old German books, his uncle didn't divulge much. He said only that he'd rescued them from a fire. Brown did not press him for details.

He always assumed the fire had been some kind of Nazi book-burning, Brown says. Following a 2005 visit to Waldenburg, however, he envisions a different scenario.

The computer that belongs to Hirschfeld Galleries' online sales manager John Mehlberg is almost completely obscured by antiques. It sits on a heavy wooden desk accented by a Tiffany-style lamp in Hirschfeld's warehouse space in the former Globe-Democrat building downtown. A patchwork of worn Oriental rugs covers the cement floor. Old books, arranged on shelves or in stacks on tables, fill the space from within a few feet of the front door to the far wall. Proprietor Michael Hirschfeld resists a more orderly arrangement of the storage facility, but Mehlberg can locate each and every e-mail from every sale in the past seven or more years on his computer.

When Sheldon Margulis auctioned off John Doty's collection, Hirschfeld bought two of the books. One, entitled Legenda Aurea, was published in 1488 and contained colorful depictions of the bloody martyrdom of various saints. Mehlberg bought a large-format scanner and created a CD of the book's contents, which he sold on eBay for $10.

Then Mehlberg put the book itself up for sale on eBay. Asking price: $6,000.

Someone at Staatsgalerie Stuttgart must have recognized the Kupferstichcabinet stamp on the CD images. When graphics collection curator Ulrike Gauss and Hirschfeld exchanged e-mails in August 2001, she said she wanted to buy the book. A month later Mehlberg wrote to Gauss, asking if the museum was still interested.

The reply from curator Hans-Martin Kaulbach didn't come until three months later. The museum's board had agreed to purchase the book, wrote Kaulbach, who requested an invoice by December 10, in time for the end of the fiscal year.

But by then Hirschfeld had sold the book to a collector in Leipzig for about $4,000. Mehlberg offered the collector's name and address. He didn't hear from Kaulbach again.

Had Gauss or Kaulbach inquired further, they might have learned that Hirschfeld Galleries had a second book from Doty's collection, this one dating back to 1567 and consisting of illustrations of Roman statues and monuments. Mehlberg says that book also bore the museum's old stamp. (Thomas Kline declined to make museum officials available for interviews for this story.)

Hirschfeld didn't hesitate to put the 1567 book up for auction on eBay. If the German museum officials had been willing to pay top dollar for Legenda, he reasoned, they'd simply pony up if they were interested in this volume.

"They never asked if we had anything else," Mehlberg notes. "They were not curious, and we were not about to bring it up." After all, why complicate the sale? "You know," says Mehlberg, "it's, 'Don't ask, don't tell.'"

Staatsgalerie Stuttgart did not bid on the second book, which Mehlberg says sold for about $4,000 in February 2002 to a collector in Miami.

Thomas Kline says he'd like to have a look at that book, but the collector won't grant him access. At this point, he says, he has no evidence that it belongs to the museum.

The book Eugene Hughes purchased from Doty's collection was resold at a price the book dealer declines to name. At Kline's and Korte's request, Hughes contacted his buyer, who sent back the book for examination. Hughes says the German legal team found no museum stamps on the volume and asserted no claim of ownership.

In April 2004 Sotheby's advised Shene to hire an attorney if he wanted to advocate for his ownership of the book. He chose New York-based art lawyer John Cahill, who has represented auction houses.

That December the auction house asked the federal district court in Manhattan to decide who has title to the book: Rod Shene or Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. U.S. District Court Judge Thomas P. Griesa could make a judgment at any time; alternatively, he might grant Shene's request for a jury trial.

Shene and Cahill say the interactions between the German museum and Hirschfeld Galleries validate Shene's claim to the Augsburg book.

Just as Kline says Shene should have followed the old stamps to a living museum, Shene says the Staatsgalerie curators should have followed Legenda Aurea to the rest of the books in St. Louis. He interpreted the museum's lack of interest as a green light to seek top dollar for the Augsburg book on the open market.

Cahill sums it up this way: "My argument is: Losers weepers, if they don't act diligently."

Here the two sides are arguing different aspects of the same fundamental legal principle. Kline contends that because one cannot obtain proper title from a thief, Shene cannot own the Augsburger Geschlechterbuch, since it was stolen from Germany. Cahill counters with what is known as the doctrine of laches, which holds one cannot create an unfair delay in making a claim. If art buyers are expected to investigate the provenance of an object, those who are looking for lost art must put the world on notice, and Cahill says Staatsgalerie Stuttgart failed to do its part. The museum, Cahill points out, could have posted notice through an online database such as the Art Loss Register ( The museum now lists more than 900 missing works in its database.

The museum's legal team points out that Shene never revealed his identity to Staatsgalerie curator Hans-Martin Kaulbach when the Metropolitan Museum of Art linked the Augsburg Genealogy to the German museum. Shene, who was dealing with his own cancer diagnosis in 2002, says he saw no reason to think it was imperative to come forward. "His communication wasn't 'illegal possession of a book,'" Shene argues. "It was, 'We'd like to know what this is, and please offer it to us at below-market price.'"

Nor does Cahill buy the notion that the museum can't have been expected to search for items that were presumed to have been destroyed by fire. If that were the case, Cahill asks, "Then why, when one came up on eBay in 2001, did they not say, 'Hey, where did that come from?'"

Finally, Shene and Cahill argue that with no witnesses and no precise account of how John Doty came to possess the books, it's wrong to presume they were stolen. "I don't need an alternative theory," the attorney adds. "He's not around to ask. That's why you have to bring these claims and make really diligent efforts to keep them alive."

Cahill, who was formerly general counsel at the auction house Phillips de Pury & Company, has employed similar lines of argument in other cases. He says most of his successes have ended with confidential settlements, but one case is slated for an upcoming trial in Nassau County, New York. That matter involves an architect, Manuel De La Torre, who fled Cuba in 1960 and left behind a large art collection. Years later de la Torre spotted one of his paintings, La Hamaca, in a Sotheby's auction ad. De la Torre has since died, but his family is pursuing the claim.

"Because so much time has passed, it's very difficult to figure out what happened here," says Cahill, who represents Sotheby's in the matter. "He should not win his case. It would be inequitable and unfair."

In May of this year, possessors scored a victory when a federal appeals court ruled that actress Elizabeth Taylor should keep a Van Gogh she bought in 1963. The heirs of a Jewish woman who fled Germany in 1939 claimed the painting had been confiscated by the Nazis. But the appellate court panel noted that Taylor's possession of the painting had been well publicized and that the family had waited too long to stake a claim.

Yet the heirs of Holocaust victims have had some major successes, too. One of the most surprising and weighty victories, says Toronto-based art lawyer Aaron Milrad, was Maria Altmann's recovery of five Gustav Klimt paintings that had hung in Austria's national gallery since shortly after World War II.

No one in art law thought an individual would be allowed to sue a foreign government in U.S. courts as Altmann did, Milrad says. "Everybody was of the view that would not succeed."

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Altmann's right to sue in 2004, but the case did not go to trial; the paintings were returned to her in 2006 through arbitration in Austria.

Such cases add to the pressure on dealers and museums, which have been returning antiquities to their home countries at an unprecedented rate, Milrad notes. The eye-opener was the 2002 conviction of New York antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz, who conspired to sell stolen artifacts from Egypt. Marion True, former antiquities curator at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, was indicted in Italy in 2005, accused of trafficking stolen antiquities. As of last month, her trial was ongoing.

Lost art is a cause célèbre, with public sentiment favoring countries and heirs, Milrad says, but it's always tricky to determine who is entitled to a work of art or an artifact, whether the piece has been missing for 50 years or for 5,000.

"It's really difficult when somebody's bought a painting and finds out the work was stolen in 1942. Who has to bear the loss?" says Milrad, the incoming chair of the Museum Trustee Association, an organization that educates and supports museum trustees in making decisions about finances, management and policy.

Especially when it comes to antiquities, Milrad says, "You're not dealing with law alone. There's all the political aspects that have to be grafted on to the rights of the parties. Many of these countries were involved in booty as well. France conquered Egypt. I don't see France offering to give these things back. Nor should they. Otherwise we're going to have the whole world exchanging gifts."

In 1994 Lynn Nicholas published The Rape of Europa, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning chronicle of Nazi looting and Allied efforts to return stolen artworks. "It was really only in the nineteenth century that the idea of national museums and national heritage took root," says Nicholas, who calls Thomas Kline a personal friend. "Before that, people collected what they could and competed like mad for things.

"I don't think it's a good idea to take apart all the museums of the world," Nicholas allows, before adding, "That said, I don't think there should be an illicit art trade."

Rod Shene could have washed his hands of the Germans in 2004. He stood by his claim, he says, in part because he felt he was being vilified and bullied.

In June 2004 Cahill relayed an offer to sell the Augsburg book to the museum for $500,000, but the two sides never came to the table. Kline says that's because Shene sued the German state on November 1 of that year; Cahill says the suit, which was withdrawn a month later, was a pre-emptive strike against what he saw as the German team's aggressive behavior.

"He offered to sell for $500,000, then they called the cops on him," Cahill says, alluding to the Department of Homeland Security's investigation of the case. The day he filed Shene's suit against the museum, Cahill e-mailed Kline saying he'd just spoken with Assistant U.S. Attorney Jane Levins, who works on art crimes. Levins had told him the Department of Justice would put its investigation on hold if Kline consented. Kline agreed, via e-mail, saying he wanted to facilitate settlement discussions. Needless to say, no settlement was reached.

Cahill is also miffed that an official from the German Embassy contacted Shene home in August 2004, at around the time his mother died.

"A German diplomat actually said to me, 'Your client is going to go to jail if he doesn't give this back,'" Cahill says.

The German consul on cultural affairs, Hubert Kolb, raised the ire of Sotheby's general counsel Jonathan Olsoff. Kolb repeatedly questioned Sotheby's appraisal and said it had falsely raised Shene's hopes. At the time, Cahill was resisting Kline's effort to arrange for an independent appraisal of the book. The acrimony peaked in December 2004, when Kolb wrote to Olsoff that he had Googled "Augsburger Geschlechterbuch" and found a copy at a German auction house for 3,000.

"Thus, I wish to express to you that the matter, which has engaged us for nearly six months now, has reached a new stage and that, in my estimation, Sotheby's and you personally have some considerable explaining to do," Kolb wrote.

Olsoff, who declined to comment for this story, wrote to Wolfgang Ischinger, who at the time was Germany's ambassador to the United States, saying he would no longer deal with Kolb. (Sotheby's also declined to comment.)

Kline has maintained that he represents only the state of Baden-Württemberg and that the consul was acting independently.

If Shene was angered by the German Embassy's antics, he was furious when John Mehlberg called in the winter of 2005 to report that Thomas Kline had submitted a written statement for Michael Hirschfeld to sign, attesting to the purchase and sale of Legenda Aurea — and that the statement contained an assertion attributed to Hirschfeld that when he sold the book he knew the buyer intended to donate it to Staatsgalerie Stuttgart.

"That makes no sense," Mehlberg says today. "We had no knowledge of it."

Eventually the statement was corrected and Hirschfeld signed. But Shene and Cahill point to the incident as an underhanded attempt to manipulate the evidence.

Kline dismisses the matter as an inconsequential error in drafting the document.

To Rod Shene, nothing about Sotheby's, Inc. v. Rod Shene, Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, and the state of Baden-Württemberg, et al. is inconsequential. His professional reputation and his financial future are on the line. He has already rung up a substantial bill for legal fees, and if he loses the case he might well spend the rest of his life in debt. If he wins, the book will have been the find of a lifetime.

As for whether the book ultimately should be returned to Germany, Shene says he doesn't care to play the hero. If he's viewed as the greedy speculator, so be it.

"If any of those issues came to mind previously, they went out the door when I had to come home to deal with business matters, when I was on the highway when my mother died," Shene says. "At no point along the way have I been told, 'Thank you.'

"If the final fate is that I'm the person that sells it for $1 million, I am not going to feel sorry for a German state that has acted like the German state of old."

In 2001 Clarence and Peter Brown spent a weekend helping their aunt, Dorothy Doty, clear out their uncle's remaining possessions so she could move to an assisted-living facility. They sold about a dozen books to Sheldon Margulis to defray the cost of shipping furniture, and parceled out other books and collectibles to their four siblings, nieces and nephews.

Clarence Brown says he had no idea about the dispute over the Augsburger Geschlecterbuch until 2005, when Willi Korte and Thomas Kline paid a visit to his Oregon home. In the coming months, Captain Doty's extended family sorted through the old books one more time, carefully examining them for the telltale museum stamp: KON. KUPFERSTICHCABINET STUTTGART.

Peter Brown says his son went through the books from Uncle John as instructed and didn't find any museum stamps. But when Korte had a look for himself, the investigator almost immediately spotted the dime-size stamp in two of the books.

"It's not a slam-dunk. They knew what they were looking for, and they found them," Brown says. "So that was a little embarrassing," he adds.

In all, the family turned over to the Germans three illustrated books, including Das Theater by Karl Walser, and Die Fabeln des Aesop.

In May 2005 they were invited to a ceremony to mark the books' return, held at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C.

A few days before the ceremony, Korte, along with curator Ulrike Gauss and cultural minister Joachim Uhlmann, were in St. Louis to examine a fourth book, another version of Aesop's Fables that had turned up in the possession of collector Jeanne Jarvis.

Jarvis relinquished the book after receiving a letter from Kline that reads in part, "The State hopes you will agree to return Esopus to Baden-Württemberg by presenting it to Dr. Gauss and Mr. Uhlmann this evening. The State is the owner of the book and returning it today will avoid litigation."

Over meals before and after the ceremony, Peter Brown says he told Gauss his uncle's sketchy tale of rescuing the books from a fire. And when he and his wife visited Europe the next fall, they made a detour to Stuttgart.

They expected Gauss to give them a tour of the gallery, but she had a surprise.

She told them she'd been doing some homework. She took them to Waldenburg and related a story she'd been told by two old men who as children had watched the treasures of the Württemberg State Gallery being passed, hand to hand, up the hill to the castle.

Brown was impressed by the castle, which had been rebuilt. The houses had been rebuilt as well. He could make out the original stone foundations.

"It was easy to visualize what it was like for these people, living in all this rubble" and having to burn treasured artifacts in order to keep warm, Brown says today. "According to the old-timers, they had formed human chains to help store them. So they knew they were from a museum. It's hard for us, sitting here in our easy chairs watching television, to imagine what it's like for people whose homes have just been blown up."

Brown believes the Augsburg book belongs in the German museum.

Still, he is unable to reconcile the fundamental legal implications of that position with the image in his mind: of his uncle, the rescuer. "The hard part about this is they're not stolen, [as in] someone broke into a museum and stole them," Brown says.

"In a strictly legal sense, it's stealing — but that wasn't his intent."

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