I n 2017, a large collection of important books and medieval manuscripts was offered to us for sale by a private individual from Belgium. After having conducted in-depth research on the provenance we quickly established that they had originally been part of the collection of the Universitäts und Landesbibliothek Bonn (ULB).
How exactly the books and manuscripts found their way to Belgium is not known. Many valuable volumes were stored in a bunker in Bonn between 1946 and 1950. It is likely that they may have been stolen during the period of the Belgian occupation in Bonn.
According to estimates, the Bonn University and State Library lost up to 180,000 volumes during the Second World War. Many books were irretrievably lost in the devastating bombing that destroyed the main building of the University on 18 October 1944. But even from the depots, in which many books had been outsourced as a precautionary measure to protect against the effects of war, an unknown number of other volumes disappeared at the end of the war and in the immediate postwar period. Whether they were destroyed or stolen cannot be ascertained today.
Every year, our Restitution and specialist departments examine approximately 15,000 individual lots, ranging from paintings to works of art and books and manuscripts, for sale at our European auction locations. On average, only a few dozen items need further attention and usually significant cases of restitution only affect individual paintings.
The scope of the present return is unprecedented in the history of Sotheby's. Never has such an extensive collection, comprising more than 600 items, been returned – and rarely so fast. From discovery to repatriation barely more than a year passed.
As an alumnus of the University of Bonn it fills me with joy to have contributed to this important return of lost books and manuscripts to 'my' university. But the present case also vividly illustrates the fruitful cooperation between the art market and public institutions, and how Sotheby's position in the market and its research capabilities can contribute to the return of lost art.