Source Search Day: Searchers are looking for legal owners

Source Quest Day pays special attention to the international activities of source seekers. In painstaking research, they often identify the rightful owners or heirs of cultural assets that, for example, have been illegally seized by museums. This happened, for example, during the Nazi dictatorship, during expropriations in the German Democratic Republic or through theft of things in the colonial period.

Source seekers often find looted items in university collections and museums. At the Martin von Wagner Museum at Julius-Maximilians-Universität (JMU) in Würzburg, for example, Nora Halfbrot, a member of the Professorship of Museology, found evidence of art that had been illegally appropriated, the university declared: it was probably created around The year 1600 in southern Germany. There is now no doubt that what is inconspicuous in the photo gallery is illegally confiscated Jewish property. It was stolen from its owners during the Nazi era and became the property of the University Museum in 1939.

In 2020, it was possible to identify the legal heirs of the Würzburg Seligsberger family, most of whom were Holocaust victims. JMU reported that 16 of them live in Canada, the United States and Israel. The university made three different proposals to make up for what would happen to the little altar: return it, buy it, or leave it on loan at the museum. According to the announcement, the grandchildren finally decided that the business would remain in its current location as a permanent loan.

What the source’s research found

“With the contract concluded in January 2022, the small altar is no longer in our possession,” explained Professor Damien Dombrowski, director of the new department at the Martin von Wagner Museum. Part of the loan agreement is a plaque explaining the background of the museum’s artwork. As a result, the small altar is reminiscent of the Seligsbergers, who, as owners of one of Germany’s largest art and antiques stores, were proud and committed citizens of Würzburg.

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In 1937, brothers Ernestine and Sigmund Seligsberger were forced to abandon their works on the instructions of the Reich Chamber of Fine Arts. Sigmund emigrated to the Netherlands and then, like his wife and son, was deported and murdered in 1942. A former employee took up the business and sold the small altarpiece to the Martin von Wagner Museum.

According to the announcement, other holdings of the university’s museum will be checked for recoveries. This includes a depiction of an alchemist who may have been stolen from the Würzburg Masonic Inn. The Nazis confiscated the inn.

Source Search Day was started in 2019 by Arbeitskreis Provenienzforschung eV. The association, based in Germany, connects researchers and experts around the world who deal with source research. The Society considers research into the origin of cultural assets an essential aspect of the Museum’s work. On Wednesday, International Source Research Day is held for the fourth time with many Events in Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the United States and Austria.

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