Arthur Vershbow, collector of rare books, donated works to MFA

Arthur Vershbow was 90.
Arthur Vershbow was 90. Handout

A rhinoceros and two fantastical creatures appear on the page of an 18th-century Italian book in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. The real and unreal fusing on the page delighted Arthur Vershbow, the Newton rare-book collector who donated it to the museum.

Hundreds of beautifully bound books lined the shelves of his private, wood-paneled library, among them one-of-a-kind prints and manuscripts. A former Boston Athenaeum president, he often opened his collection to young book enthusiasts who arrived with professors or parents to examine the rare books. He could tell visitors where he bought each book, the price he paid, and, as friends and family joked, the weather on the day of purchase.


“I’ve never seen the likes of it,’’ said Benjamin Weiss, the Leonard A. Lauder curator of visual culture at the MFA.

“He was someone who was a true native of the book world. It’s not just a trophy collection. It is a collection of real love.’’

Mr. Vershbow, who ran his family’s Dorchester-based manufacturing company by day, died April 16 in his Newton home from complications of Parkinson’s disease, about three weeks after turning 90.

The collection he built with his wife, Charlotte, was well-known in book-collecting circles. The Vershbows spent evenings and weekends scouring the world for books that were in the best possible condition. A particularly great find would prompt excited phone calls among bibliophiles they knew.

“He would show them to friends and say ‘What do you think?’ ’’ said his daughter, Ann of Princeton, N.J.

One such friend was Andrew Robison, the Andrew W. Mellon senior curator of prints and drawings at the National Gallery of Art.

“They were both really delightful, charming, happy people with a wide range of interests, and very open, generous, and sharing,’’ Robison said of the Vershbows.


Mr. Vershbow’s love of collecting helped propel him to the Boston Athenaeum presidency in 1982, a post he held for more than a decade.

“It was very refreshing for all of us here to have him as head of the board,’’ said John Lannon, associate director and curator of maps at the Athenaeum. He added that curators “probably learned more from that man and his wonderful wife than we did from any schools we could have gone to.’’

Board members at the Museum of Fine Arts held Mr. Vershbow’s opinions in high regard, friends and colleagues said.

On one occasion, the board was considering acquiring a piece by a well-known artist when Mr. Vershbow quietly said, “But it isn’t a very good one, is it?’’ His family recalled that the board declined the purchase.

“He would listen very carefully, and then people would look to him,’’ said longtime friend George Abrams, who also served on the MFA’s board.

Clifford Ackley, the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro curator of prints and drawings at the MFA, said Mr. Vershbow “was greatly respected by the whole board and by the directors because they recognized that he really knew what he was talking about.’’

Among bibliophiles, Mr. Vershbow and his wife “had sort of a following,’’ said Elmar Seibel, owner of Ars Libri, a rare books store in the South End. “There were lots of people who absolutely adored them.’’

Seibel would sit and discuss a book for hours with the Vershbows and “every time I left there, I left having learned something new.’’


In his own library, Mr. Vershbow knew the contents of shelves top to bottom and could explain where to find each book.

“Seeing him in his library was the personification of a search engine. You would see his mind at work,’’ said his grandson Benjamin of Brooklyn, N.Y.

Born in Dorchester to immigrants from Poland and Lithuania, Mr. Vershbow graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a bachelor’s and a master’s in mechanical engineering. During World War II, he worked in the university’s instrumentation lab on radar technology.

His father was a founder of Modern Die and Machine Co. The Dorchester-based business expanded to include Eastern Steel Rack and Servolift Corp.

“He was a joy to work with,’’ said Mr. Vershbow’s cousin Herb Shivek of Brookline.

Mr. Vershbow was responsible for company matters related to personnel.

“He was just the easiest person in the world to get along with,’’ Shivek said.

Mr. Vershbow joined the Athenaeum’s board in 1977. He became vice president in 1981, and president the following year.

At the same time, he was appointed to the MFA’s board, on which he served until 1999.

Mr. Vershbow and the former Charlotte Zimmerman, whom he married in 1947, first donated a work of art to the museum in 1956. They continued to donate art each year, including works by Rembrandt, Piranesi, and Van Dyck, until she died in 2000. They also served on numerous committees at the MFA.


“Arthur was one of those people who is totally irreplaceable,’’ Ackley said.

In addition to his daughter, Ann, and grandson Benjamin, Mr. Vershbow leaves a son Alexander of Brussels, Belgium; another grandson; and a granddaughter.

Services have been held. Burial was in Temple Ohabei Shalom Cemetery in East Boston.

“He was a very lucky man, a very happy man, and he had a great life,’’ his daughter said.

Mr. Vershbow also had a whimsical side. He liked to wear hats, telling friends he didn’t want to “burn out his brain cells,’’ and he often left the room exclaiming, “Cheerio!’’

“I also liked his wit,’’ said Rabbi Alan Turetz, of Temple Emeth in Chestnut Hill. “He had a mischievous wit, very entertaining. It was just a pleasure to be with him.’’

Mr. Vershbow, Turetz added, “was astute, and he said a lot in a pithy fashion.’’

Emma Stickgold can be reached at estickgoldobits@gmail.com.