Item from the Berlin Antikensammlung Lost During the War is Found at the Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg

Altes Museum

The Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg is returning an ancient Greek vase to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Antikensammlung, which had been considered lost since 1945. Until 17 May 2020 the object will remain on exhibit in Magdeburg, after which it will go on display in the Altes Museum in Berlin.

The vase is an Attic white-ground lekythos, a receptacle for carrying anointing oils produced in Athens from the second half of the 5th century BC, which was used in burial rituals. The lekythos had been acquired for the Antikensammlung in 1912. Up until the 1930s, it was displayed in the Altes Museum together with its companion piece, the whereabouts of which remain unknown to this day. At the outbreak of the Second World War the objects were packed away in order to protect them. When the war ended in 1945, the crate was located in the basement of the Pergamonmuseum. Until it was uncovered in Magdeburg, nothing was known about the vase’s whereabouts since that time.    

Research and Return

The Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg received the piece in 2001 as part of the estate of Hans-Joachim Riecke. In the course of the restructuring of the art collections in Magdeburg, a researcher from the museum discovered that one of the vases from the estate might be the lost lekythos from Berlin. The Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg then informed the Berlin Anitkensammlung. Extensive and meticulous research in the archive documentation of the museum in Berlin revealed that it was indeed the lost item.

As the administrators of the museum, the city of Magdeburg decided to return the object. The white-ground lekythos will remain on exhibit at the Kunsthistorisches Museum Magdeburg until 17 May 2020, where it has been on display to the public since the museum reopened today. After 17 May, it will be presented on the main floor of the Altes Museum on the Museumsinsel Berlin.   

The Lekythos

With its slender, cylindrical body and narrow neck, the vase is coated in a white ground, on which figurative depictions are painted in luminous colours. The scene depicts soldiers departing for war. Its lost companion piece (Inv. 30219, 19) depicted the continuation of the story, as it were. It showed a woman visiting the tomb of a young warrior, who himself sits in front of his burial site, mourning his fate. The two lekythoi, produced as a pair, are estimated to have been created in the decade of 440–430 BC.

With their highly delicate polychrome painting, lekythoi were produced exclusively for use in burial rituals. The receptacles held oil for the anointment of the corpse, and were used during the laying-out of the dead at home and at the burial site. In Athens in the second half of the 5th century BC – from around 460 to 400 BC – thousands of these matte-coated vessels were produced. A number of painters specialised in decorating this style of vase.

The Berlin Antikensammlung owns around 50 lekythoi of this kind. The largest (at a height of more than 75 cm) and latest of these, with their often trompe l’oeil painting and their play of light and shadow, serve as a kind of substitute for the famous Athenian murals of the era, which are mentioned in writings but have since been lost. However, the delicate colours have largely been erased and can only be reconstructed through analyses of trace elements.   

This piece formed part of the significant and valuable collection of the Jewish industrialist from Frankfurt Friedrich Ludwig von Gans (1833–1920), who donated it to the Antikensammlung in 1912. He received advice on making acquisitions for his collection from Robert Zahn, the curator of the Berlin Antikensammlung (from 1900 to 1935), who later also organised for the piece to be donated to Berlin. In return, Gans received his peerage from the Kaiser.

The History of the Disappearance

Based on archival records in the Antikensammlung, the story of how the vase and its companion piece came to disappear was able to be pieced together. Historical photos from 1916 and 1925 prove that both vases were exhibited on the upper floor of the Altes Museum as part of the Gans Collection. In a photograph of the room, the piece that later turned up in Magdeburg can be clearly identified because of a characteristic blemish. In addition, both receptacles were mentioned as forming part of the Gans Collection in an essay published in 1931, accompanied by photographs.

When packing up the Antikensammlung at the outbreak of the war in 1939, all objects were catalogued in relocation lists. These provide records of which objects were located in which crates, and where the crates had last been stored. The two Gans lekythoi were not listed under their actual inventory numbers, in part because the page on the Gans Collection in the unbound inventory is missing. However, the pieces were assigned auxiliary numbers, which were recorded on the underside of the bases of the vases in pencil. With the help of these auxiliary numbers, they can be identified among the contents of a crate which at the end of the war was stored in the basement of the Pergamonmuseum. In the confusion of those weeks, they must have been stolen from that crate.

The individual who would later donate the object, Hans-Joachim Riecke, listed the vase that has now been uncovered in Magdeburg in a privately printed booklet made in 1949 as being privately owned, with the (demonstrably false) description that the piece had been found in a Berlin art dealership in 1929.