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Nazi loot

War loot found in a rug dealer’s shop in Boston

Veteran’s reluctant admission of taking plunder clinches case

Boston

Seven miniature paintings worth more than half a million dollars that were taken from a mineshaft in Germany as souvenirs by an American in 1945 have been returned to the library of the University of Kassel, which owns them. A Boston antique rug dealer had held them for the last twenty-five years.

The pictures come from an early Renaissance Book of Hours that were in the collection of Johann Albrecht von Mecklenburg. Four of them are the work of the master Flemish miniaturist Simon Bening. Sometime in the nineteenth century, they were removed from the original book and framed separately. They were also stored separately in a Thuringian mineshaft after 1942, when Allied air raids on Kassel fiercened.

For the last twenty-five years, the pictures were held by Thomas Chatalbash, a rug dealer with a shop in Brookline, Massachusetts. Mr Chatalbash paid the dealer Richard McElroy $200 for them in 1974 and put several on the walls of his shop, thinking that the works were nineteenth-century copies.

But in 1989, the miniatures caught the eye of Alan Shestack, then director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), who was buying a rug from Mr Chatalbash. Mr Shestack suspected that the works were originals and had his museum curators look at them. They determined that the miniatures were sixteenth-century works and that they indeed came from Kassel, Germany. On the advice of the MFA’s counsel at the time, the museum director and the curators left it up to Mr Chatalbash to return them, without alerting either law enforcement or the Kassel University Library.

German authorities and Kassel University lawyers only learned where the miniatures were after a London rare book dealer, Richard A. Linenthal of Bernard Quaritch Ltd, threatened to report Mr Chatalbash.

The rug dealer responded bizarrely by filing a pre-emptive motion in a Boston court in 1996, announcing that he bought the pictures in good faith from an undisclosed seller. Mr Chatalbash argued that there was no proof that the works were stolen.

After Kassel sued Mr Chatalbash in Boston, the dealer countersued Kassel and their investigator, Willi Korte, for defamation and later reneged on several agreements to settle the case, which would have involved a payment from Germany.

The case was finally ended after Mr Korte learned that in the late 1970s a Connecticut man had returned a twelfth-century Cicero manuscript to the Kassel library which the man had at first tried in vain to sell and which had been given back with the assistance of the Pierpont Morgan Library. At the time, the Connecticut man said that he had taken nothing else from Germany.

But in March, when Kassel’s lawyers showed him photocopies of the miniatures, William Braemer of Sterling, Connecticut wrote and signed an affidavit stating that he had taken and later sold the miniatures for $100 to Richard McElroy of Woodstock, Connecticut, who had sold them to Mr Chatalbash. Now seventy-nine, Mr Braemer, in poor health after heart surgery, admitted finding the pictures scattered in a mineshaft with other objects and documents. Mr Braemer was an employee of the Armstrong Aircraft Company assigned to search Nazi hiding places for information on the Messerschmidt firm’s aeronautic technology. Mr Braemer stated that, “There were boxes of books in this mine. There were also loose photographs in the boxes. I took these seven paintings from the mine at that time. The paintings were not in frames. I found a manuscript at the same time and took it.”

Mr Braemer’s written testimony shattered Mr Chatalbash’s protestations, but the dealer wanted compensation and got a finder’s fee. The exact sum in such cases usually amounts to between 10% and 15% of the current market value of the returned objects—in this case, $500,000-1 million. Critics attack this practice as a legal bribe or ransom, but Dr Peter Christian Hauswedell, Germany’s consul general in Boston, defended it.

Mr Chatalbash’s belligerence over the miniatures put a high price tag on getting them back. Lawyers fees were estimated at some $100,000 for each side, (possibly much more) plus the finder’s fee, which would have put the cost of recovering the miniatures at some $300,000. Insiders say that, by art restitution standards, this case was resolved cheaply.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Kassel gets pictures back, for a price (new one taken from subject)'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 82 June 1998