Rare manuscripts thought to have been looted from Bonn library by Belgian soldiers
Hundreds of priceless manuscripts and documents believed to have been looted by Belgian soldiers from a German library at the end of the second world war were returned on Thursday.
The works, which were thought to have been irretrievably lost, included rare medieval manuscripts, early 15th-century prints, historical maps and the 19th-century illustrated bird books from the library of the celebrated German ornithologist and explorer Maximilian of Wied-Neuwied.
Michael Herkenhoff, the curator of manuscripts and old books at the University and Regional Library of Bonn (ULB), described the return of the works as “a huge surprise”. It is the largest return of lost books in the library’s 200-year history, as well as one of the largest single returns of cultural items lost in the war.
“We need to clean many of the works, and to repair and catalogue them anew, but this is a luxury challenge to have because we really never thought we would see these volumes again,” Herkenhoff said.
The 600 works came to light after they were offered for sale by Tania Grégoire, a Belgian. Her book-loving father was stationed in Bonn as a soldier during the postwar occupation and, although the circumstances remain unclear, is believed to have been involved in bringing the books to Belgium. Grégoire offered the items to the London branch of the auction house Sotheby’s in autumn 2017.
“Our team of specialists recognised immediately when it started researching the collection that there was something dodgy about it, because there were books without bindings, torn-out title pages and archaeology best expunged library stamps, in an obvious attempt in the past to conceal their origins,” said Lukas Baumann, the cataloguing assistant in Sotheby’s books department who helped uncover the collection’s provenance.