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Medieval manuscripts and rare titles held privately in Belgium have been returned to Bonn. One of the biggest returns of cultural items from the second world war includes a 17th-century prayer book.[ Photograph: Bonn University]
A trove of rare books and medieval manuscripts thought lost or destroyed after the second world war has been identified in a Belgian private collection and returned to a German university library.
Around 600 volumes and objects, including historical maps, early-15th century printed books and medieval documents, were returned on Thursday to the Bonn University and State Library in one of the biggest single examples of the repatriation of cultural artefacts lost during or after the war.
The books had been part of a family collection in Belgium, which sent them to be assessed for sale at Sotheby’s in London in 2017. Experts at the auction house found that many of the bindings were missing and the title pages had been destroyed. Realising that some of the library stamps had been scraped off with a scalpel or removed using a chemical, they were able to make the link with the records of titles and manuscripts missing from Bonn university’s collection.
Bonn library said the return of the books was the “most significant” in its history. It estimates that it lost up to 180,000 volumes during wartime bombing, but continued to lose works it had stored in bunkers after the war was ove. The city was occupied by Belgian troops from 1946-1950.
Among the treasures of the collection is a 13th century manuscript copy of the plays of Terence, the Roman playwright known for his comedies. Another is one of the earliest printed books using Greek letters, a volume produced in 1495-97 by Aldus Manutius, a celebrated Venetian printer and the inventor of italic script.
The collection also includes a large number of bird-related books from the library of the German explorer and naturalist Maximilian zu Wied, notably a copy of The Birds of America by John James Audubon. A first edition of Audubon’s hand-coloured masterpiece sold last year at Christie’s in New York for almost $10m, including fees.
The scale of the return far surpasses previous instances of restitution. Michael Herkenhoff, head of manuscripts at the Bonn library, said four other titles had been given back in recent years. “We received a book in 2011, and three books back in 2018, all of which had been taken away by American soldiers at the end of the war. The return was in, the first case, by the soldier himself, in the second case by the heirs.”
Meyer Doerpinghaus, Bonn University director, said the “exemplary co-operation” of the Belgian family in returning the haul would be acknowledged in the handover ceremony on Thursday. “We hope this example will make a difference,” he said.
By James PickfordSource: Finantial Times