Why did leading US museum director keep mum over paintings stolen from Kassel?

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts and its former director, Alan Shestack are castigated in the press


New York

The reappearance of seven early sixteenth-century, German miniature paintings in Boston is a classic war loot case: a dealer claiming to have purchased the works in good faith for next to nothing; the threat of a lawsuit by a German library and an anguished public reaction in Boston, a city that prides itself on its Puritan probity. The role played by one of the country’s most distinguished museums is also raising eyebrows.

At issue are seven small paintings, including four by the Flemish master Simon Bening, part of a Book of Hours that belonged to Duke Johann Albrecht von Mecklenburg. Before World War II, the works were in the University Library of the city of Kassel, Germany. When the city came under Allied bombardment, the pictures and other works from the library were removed to a Thuringian mine shaft for safekeeping.

In 1974 a Boston antique rug dealer, Thomas P. Chatalbash, bought the pictures. The price, Mr Chatalbash admits, was $200 for the group. He will not disclose where the works were bought.

The miniatures sat in Mr Chatalbash’s shop in a Boston suburb until 1989, when the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA)’s then director, Alan Shestack, stopped in, shopping for a rug. Mr Shestack noticed the miniatures, thought they might be originals and offered to have them appraised at the museum.

When museum experts saw the pictures (which have been locked away in safe-deposit boxes since April 1989), they concluded that the works were the originals from Kassel and not the nineteenth-century reproductions that Mr Chatalbash said he thought they were. Valuing the works at $500,000 to $1 million as a group, the same experts also advised Mr Chatalbash to return the paintings to the German library—and to expect honours and a reward if he did so.

Along with Mr Shestack, two sixteenth-century manuscript experts who examined the works in 1989 report that they thought Mr Chatalbash would follow their advice, and that only later did they realise that he had decided to keep them. It is thanks to pressure from one of those experts, Richard A. Linenthal of the London antiquarian booksellers Bernard Quaritch Ltd, that knowledge of the pictures has come to light.

In correspondence between 1990 and 1996 with Mr Shestack and Mr Chatalbash, Mr Linenthal stressed the importance of repatriating the works held by Mr Chatalbash. His inaction led in 1996 to a threat from Mr Linenthal to go public with the matter. At that point, Mr Chatalbash and his lawyers filed papers in a Massachusetts court acknowledging their possession of the paintings and claiming good title.

Part of Mr Chatalbash’s strategy involved contacting international organisations that monitor the trade in war loot and stolen art, a move that puzzles war loot investigators. That is how news reached the University of Kassel, which, through the State of Hesse has requested the paintings’ return.

Mr Chatalbash has dug in his heels now, claiming title and refusing to return the works, so Hesse will sue for restitution. Mr Chatalbash’s lawyers argue that it is by no means clear that the paintings were actually stolen. Moreover, they say that Hesse has failed to show due diligence in tracing the works.

On the German side, attorney Thomas Kline of Andrews & Kurthe in Washington and investigator Wille Korte say that the location of the paintings is well documented until their disappearance in 1945 and that there have been numerous published references to the works, noting that they had been missing since then. Mr Korte suspects that they were looted by the American soldiers who were removing works of art from the mineshaft. No more is known about the works’ location until Mr Chatalbash bought them in 1974.

The most curious element of this story is the role of Alan Shestack (he left the MFA three years ago to become deputy director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington). Although Mr Shestack did advise Mr Chatalbash of the experts’ opinions, he left it up to him to notify Kassel University library of the pictures’ whereabouts.

Contacted by journalists in March, Mr Shestack admitted coming across the miniatures in 1989 but denied that he or the museum had had any further dealings with Mr Chatalbash, although private correspondence between him and the dealer show that he owed Mr Chatalbash money until 22 December 1990, when the debt was settled for $1388.40. Mr Shestack also denied knowing Mr Linenthal until confronted with copies of his correspondence, when he said, “I did what was right at the time.”

The conventions of museum behaviour demanded that Mr Shestack contact Kassel upon learning that the works were stolen from there. “How would he have felt if another museum sat on information about paintings stolen from his own museum?” one lawyer asked. Former colleagues at the Museum of Fine Arts suggest that Mr Shestack’s failure to notify the university library was because he did not want the museum to be dragged into a long, expensive fight to return the works to Germany. “When it became complicated, Mr Shestack decided he did not want me, or the museum involved,” recalled Barbara Butts, a former MFA curator who spoke about the case to the Boston Globe, the newspaper that broke the story this April.

Days after revelations appeared on the Globe’s front page, a lengthy, anguished editorial chastised the MFA for its failure to notify Kassel and demanded that Mr Chatalbash return the pictures. In a subsequent letter to the Boston Globe, the MFA’s current director, Malcolm Rogers, pledged to follow proper museum practice and distanced today’s MFA from Mr Shestack’s ancien régime.