NEW YORK—Sotheby’s is asking the U.S. District Court in New York to determine who owns a 16th-century volume of drawings and engravings that was consigned by Rod Shene, a St. Louis, Mo., book dealer, but claimed by the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. Negotiations between Shene and the German government collapsed in acrimony over the value of the (Augsburg Book of Nobles).
Sotheby’s has estimated the value of the volume at $600,000. The German museum and the German Consulate in New York believe the value is significantly lower but claim they cannot attempt to reach a settlement without an independent appraisal of the book.
Purchased in ‘Good Faith’
The volume, which bears the stamps of the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, was among the cultural objects evacuated from the German State of Baden-Württemberg for safekeeping during World War II. Shene’s attorney John Cahill, of Friedman Kaplan Seiler & Adelman in Manhattan, said the dealer had bought the book in good faith at a private auction in 2001, and that the German museum had made no effort to locate the book before Shene tried to sell it.
The object was believed to have been destroyed during the war, according to Hubert Kolb, the cultural attaché at the German Consulate. Kolb now thinks the book was stolen by an unidentified American soldier, whose widow later arranged for the book’s sale. Kolb said that last year the German government offered to reimburse Shene for the purchase price of the book.
After informing Shene that the book could not be auctioned without notifying the museum, Sotheby’s contacted the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. “Our only current role, therefore,” Sotheby’s spokeswoman Diana Phillips told ARTnewsletter, “is that we are holding the book as a neutral party until the courts resolve the dispute over ownership between the museum and Mr. Shene.”
U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Griesa could either commence hearings on ownership or refer the case to a mediator. Cahill and Kolb told ARTnewsletter they would accept mediation, but, Kolb notes, “we want to know the market value of the book. I hope the court is helpful in telling Mr. Cahill he has no reason to object to an independent appraisal.”
The book includes 53 iron etchings and 43 drawings that are associated with Heinrich Vogtherr the Elder and Hans Burgkmair the Younger.
“This volume has been out of circulation for about 60 years, and no one at the museum is familiar with it,” says Thomas Kline of Andrews Kurth, Washington, D.C., the firm representing the Staatsgalerie Stuttgart and the State of Baden-Württemberg. “At this point in an ownership dispute, it is reasonable for both sides to have open access to the artwork.”
Sotheby’s has “not reviewed or reconsidered that estimate as we only estimate objects in contemplation of a possible sale,” says Phillips, “and, as this object obviously cannot be offered for sale at this time, we have had no reason to further consider our preliminary estimate.”