Books believed lost are back in Bonn
After more than 70 years 600 volumes return to the University Library in Bonn

Medieval documents belong to the now returned collection. This document comes from the Belgian monastery Valdieu (Valley of God) and is from the year 1255. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bon

The University and State Library of Bonn (ULB) is celebrating the return of more than 600 volumes that had disappeared during the immediate post-war period. Among them are numerous historical works of high cultural and material value. It is the greatest successful return of lost books in the 200-year history of the University Library. In 2017, individual pieces of the book treasure, which had been privately owned for seventy years, appeared at the London auction house Sotheby’s. The University of Bonn managed to obtain a quick and complete repatriation of the books.

According to estimates, the University and State Library lost up to 180,000 volumes during World War II. Many books were irretrievably destroyed in the bombing that devastated the University’s main building on October 18th, 1944. But even in the depots, where many books had been placed as a precautionary measure to protect them against the effects of war, an unknown number of volumes disappeared at the end of the war and in the immediate postwar period. Whether they were destroyed or stolen cannot be reconstructed today.

Sometimes books from this period return to Bonn after decades and on partly tortuous paths. Michael Herkenhoff, who is responsible for manuscripts at ULB, recalls: “We received a book back in 2011 and three books in 2018, which American soldiers had taken away at the end of the war. In the first case, the soldier returned the book himself, in the second case the heirs gave them back to the library.” The books returned now were in the private possession of a Belgian. “These are of immense cultural and material value,” says Dr. Herkenhoff, “and include medieval and modern manuscripts and documents, historical maps, early 15th-century prints, rare prints of the 16th century and numerous colored bird books.”

Sotheby’s contacted Bonn’s University and State Library

ULB director Dr. Ulrich Meyer-Doerpinghaus (left) and Dr. Michael Herkenhoff assess the returned books. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn

The fact that the volumes belong to the ULB was noticed when the Belgian owner, who had inherited the books, offered these valuable pieces to the London auction house Sotheby’s. The director of ULB, Ulrich Meyer-Doerpinghaus, says: “Sotheby’s informed us after a thorough examination of the origin of the works to be auctioned. The return could then be resolved quickly and by mutual agreement with the Belgian owner.”

How exactly the manuscripts and old prints arrived in Belgium is unknown. Dr. Herkenhoff says: “Many valuable volumes were stored between 1946 and 1950 in a bunker in Bonn. They may have been stolen during the period of Belgian occupation in Bonn.”

Books are back in BonnULB director Dr. Ulrich Meyer-Doerpinghaus (left) and Dr. Michael Herkenhoff assess the returned books. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn

The rapid repatriation of more than 600 volumes was facilitated by the support of the Cultural Foundation of the Federal States and the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia. “After more than 70 years, this treasure is back where it belongs. Thanks to the outstanding work of the responsible staff members, the return of this historic collection to Bonn’s University and State Library took place with mutual understanding and without any conflicts”, says Dr. Hildegard Kaluza from the Ministry of Culture and Science of North Rhine-Westphalia. “I am very happy that the books are now once again available to researchers and the interested public.” Prof. Dr. Markus Hilgert, Secretary General of the Cultural Foundation of the Federal States, emphasizes the enormous cultural significance of the volumes.
“Many of the old prints are not found in any other German library. They are an important testimony to the invention of book printing,” he says.
“The compilation is returning to its original location, strengthening, among other things, the collection focus of the ULB – Romance Language and Literature.”

The Rector of the University of Bonn Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Michael Hoch thanked everyone involved for their exemplary cooperation and adds: “I am especially pleased for our researchers, above all for our students.
It is now again possible for them to work scientifically with these unique testimonies from the old stock of our University and State Library.”

University and State Library of Bonn books
Historical works are also among the returned pieces. This illustration is from the family book of Wilhelm Weyer. It contains numerous entries, especially of members of Lower Rhine families from the first half of the 17th century. Photo: Volker Lannert/Uni Bonn

Press release from the University of Bonn / Universität Bonn