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In one scene of the movie Monuments Men (2014), James Granger (Matt Damon) and Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) stand in a Nazi warehouse filled with crates of looted property as he looks at a painting. He asks, “What is all this?” and she replies, “People’s lives.” While the movie stresses the achievements of the Allied Monuments Men, sadly, they were only able to find a fraction of everything looted by the Nazis. Restoration of these items to the owners or their heirs is a process that continues to this day. For this reason, museums around the world pay close attention to any art or historical object that has a gap in ownership between 1933 and 1950.

As part of Museum of the Bible’s review of the ownership history of all its important objects, I have been researching the history of an early printed book in the collections of Museum of the Bible: a 1495 edition of the Plenarium Evangelien und Episteln (Full Text of the Gospels and Epistles) printed by Johann Schönsperger in Augsburg, Germany. We call printed books from Gutenberg’s Bible up through the year 1500, incunables (from the Latin incunabula, meaning “swaddling clothes” or “cradle”), because these come from the “infancy” of printing. The book contains the passages of the Gospels and Epistles read throughout the Catholic liturgical year, beginning with Advent.

Figure 1: Opening page of the readings for the second Sunday of Advent (Romans 15:4–13 and Luke 21:25–28) showing Jesus pointing out the signs in the sun, moon, and stars to his disciples.

 Because not everyone understood Latin, the Plenarium quotes only the first sentence of the reading from the Vulgate. A translation of the complete text into German and an explanation of the reading follows. Throughout, there are 58 small, hand-colored woodcuts to illustrate passages from the Gospels and one full-page woodcut of the Four Evangelists. The Plenarium was a popular text until the start of the Reformation. The last edition appeared in 1522 in Basle, the same year as the publication of Luther’s New Testament.[1]  

As with most incunables, this Plenarium passed through many hands over the centuries, but not all of them have a history as interesting as this one. The Green Collection of Oklahoma City purchased the Plenarium from Jörn Günther Rare Books AG in 2010 and donated it to Museum of the Bible in 2014. Using some information supplied by an employee at Jörn Günther, I began my research into the provenance of the Plenarium with the inside cover and the first page.

Figure 2: The inside cover of the Plenarium. 

A lengthy Latin inscription under the title records that a Franciscan theologian named Gratianus Raittmayr acquired the book in 1791 from Welden Monastery, home to sisters of the Third Order of St. Francis.

Figure 3: The Latin inscription from Gratianus Raittmayr. You can see his name in the last line. 

The Austrian emperor Joseph II secularized the monastery the following year. Later, the Bavarian sculptor Franz Xaver Schwanthaler (1799–1854) owned it, based on his signature on the page.

Figure 4: Close-up of Schwanthaler's signature: Xav. Schwanthaler.

Most importantly, two bookplates on the inside cover act like parentheses surrounding the Plenarium’s history during World War II. A red and gold label says, “Ex Musaeo Hans Furstenberg,” and below it is a black and white label saying, “Propriété de la Fondation Furstenberg – Beaumesnil.” These clues introduced me to the story of the collection of Jean Furstenberg (1890–1982).

Figure 5: The two bookplates pointing to the book's inclusion in the Furstenberg collection.

Hans Fürstenberg was the son of a Jewish banker who lived in Berlin. Hans also became a banker, but his passion was his collection of books. In 1930, he described his collecting focus as “German literature in original editions, French books of the 18th century, incunables, woodcuts, [and] beautiful bindings.”[2] The rise of Nazi power in Germany caused him to flee to Paris in 1936, bringing his collection of 16,000 books with him after paying a large Reichsfluchtsteuer (escape from the [Third] Reich tax).[3] In 1938, he and his Russian-born wife, Eugénie, purchased the Château de Beaumesnil in Normandy and eventually transferred the collection there.[4] He became a French citizen and legally changed his name to Jean Furstenberg.[5] After the Germans invaded France, the Furstenbergs fled to Switzerland, abandoning the château and its collection.  

The Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR), a Nazi looting task force, confiscated the collection and designated it for inclusion in the Zentral Bibliothek der Hoch Schule (ZBHS), the library of a planned academy for the Nazi elite in Berlin.[6] As the war turned against the Nazis, the ERR transferred the contents of the ZBHS to Annenheim and Tanzenberg, Austria.[7] At the end of the war, Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives officers (a.k.a., the Monuments Men) serving with the British Army found hundreds of thousands of volumes on shelves and in crates.[8] In 1946, one of the now-famous Monuments Men, John F. Hayward, put together an exhibition of incunables and rare books with beautiful bindings from the recovered books in Klagenfurt, Austria, to educate British Army personnel about the extent of Nazi looting. He said he drew heavily on books looted from Furstenberg’s collection.[9] 

After the war, the Furstenbergs returned to France. Between 1946 and 1950, only 2,044 books, approximately 13% of the original collection, were found and returned to Jean.[10] Jean and Eugénie had no children, and so in 1964 they created the Fondation Furstenberg — Beaumesnil to preserve the château, which became a national landmark.[11] At about the same time, they donated a collection of books to the foundation. After their deaths in 1982, the foundation, to help maintain the château, auctioned some of the collection through the Hôtel Drouot in Paris.[12] 

With these broad outlines of the story, important questions remained. Was this incunable part of Furstenberg’s collection looted by the ERR and found in Tanzenberg? If so, was there any proof beyond the paper bookplate that it had been donated to the Fondation Furstenberg — Beaumesnil? Provenance research makes one wary of jumping to conclusions. I have learned book thieves sometimes go to great lengths to disguise their stolen goods. 

In my research into Furstenberg and the foundation, I came across references that cited works by Dr. Sem C. Sutter, a person I had known in the early 1980s, when we both worked in Rare Books and Special Collections at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library. Re-connecting with an old friend was an unexpected bonus to my investigation. Dr. Sutter generously sent me scans of one of his articles dealing with Jean Furstenberg, plus scans of John F. Hayward’s article and relevant pages from Walther Grothe‘s book on incunables found at Tanzenberg that facilitated the research. When I learned the Grolier Club Library in New York City had a copy of a French auction catalog that might contain the sale of the Plenarium, I contacted the head librarian, Ms. Meghan Constantinou. Her assistant librarian, Mr. Scott Ellwood, found the catalog and graciously scanned the relevant pages for me. Using this data, I was able to trace the history of the book through the war years and beyond.  

Although Hayward did not specifically mention the Plenarium in 1946, two other sources did mention it as part of Furstenberg’s looted collection. The List of Property Removed from France During the War 1939–1945 (Volume VII) — Archives, Manuscripts, and Rare Books lists two copies of the Plenarium owned by Furstenberg.[13] One of these dates from 1488 and was printed in Strasbourg by Thomas Anselm. The other is simply identified as “Plenarium, 1495.” This is likely the museum’s copy because Walther Grothe listed a “so-called ‘Plenarium’” published in 1495 by Hans Schönsperger in Augsburg that came from the collection of Furstenberg and has numerous colored woodblock prints. It is in a list of approximately 130 incunables found in Tanzenberg castle.[14] Taken together, this establishes this book was owned by Furstenberg before the war, looted by the ERR, and found at Tanzenberg. 

Happily, the auction catalog supplied additional data that established the Plenarium was part of the 13% of the original collection that had been returned to Furstenberg after the war and that it was donated to the foundation. It appears as Lot 7 in the November 16, 1983, auction of incunables and rare books from the foundation that took place at Hôtel Drouot in Paris.[15] The catalog’s description included an image of the full-page woodcut, proving the black and white foundation bookplate was genuine and not an attempt to hide a looted and stolen incunable. This rare book does have a verifiable legal ownership history covering the time before and after the Nazi-era looting.

Figure 6: The full-page woodcut showing, clockwise from the upper right, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, with Paul in the center. This woodcut was used to identify the Plenarium as the one that was sold in the auction. 

Unfortunately, Jean Furstenberg never saw the other 87% of his collection again. After rebuilding and creating a new collection, he wrote in 1976 that “a knowledgeable book thief must have been at work who plucked out several of the real ‘pearls’ for himself,” but added philosophically, “the various changes and wanderings of my library might reflect in a small way a picture of our times. Much went, much came, and in the end, only the name of the collector remains.”[16] And thankfully, rare books remain that give insight into both the Bible and its impact as well as the broader sweep of world history. 

To see more images of the Plenarium and its beautiful woodcuts, view it on the Collections page

By Brian Hyland, Associate Curator of Manuscripts



[1] F. Mershman, Plenarium, s.v., The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company: New York, 1911), accessed at http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/12164b.htm

[2] Hans Fürstenberg, “Bücherliebhaber: Hans Fürstenberg,” Philobiblon. Eine Zeitschrift für Bücherliebhaber 3 (January 1930), 9–14, quoted by Sem C. Sutter, “Looting of Jewish Collections in France by the Einsatz Reichsleiter Rosenberg,” Jüdischer Buchbesitz als Raubgut: Zeitschrift für Bibliothekswesen und Bibliographie Sonderheft 88, ed. Regine Dehnel (Vittorio Klostermann GmbH: Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 2006), 120–134; the quotation is on page 127. (My translation). 

[3] Antonia Bartoli, “Findings from the Bindings: Nazi Era Spoliation Research at the British Library II — The Collection of Jean Furstenberg,” June 4, 2019, British Library blog, https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2019/06/findings-from-the-bindings-nazi-era-spoliation-research-at-the-british-library-ii-the-collection-of-.html

[4] Sutter, 127. 

[5] Bartoli. 

[6] Bartoli; Sutter, 129. 

[7] Sutter, 129. 

[8] Sutter, 130. 

[9] John F. Hayward, “The Exhibition of Rare Books from the Library of Tanzenberg,” Apollo: The Magazine of the Arts for Connoisseurs and Collectors 43 (March 1946): 53–57, 70, esp. page 56. Hayward does not mention the Plenarium in his article. 

[10] Martine Poulain compiled a database of individuals and institutions whose libraries had been seized by the ERR. A spreadsheet summary of the database for individuals records the number of books returned to Furstenberg each year from 1946 to 1950. The database can be accessed here:

[11] https://www.chateaubeaumesnil.com/en/fondation-furstenberg-beaumesnil/

[12] https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/term/BIOG26745

[13] Accessed at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/34817301, image 85. 

[14] Walther Grothe, Wiegendrucke in der Zeitenwende: Versuch der geistes- und bildungsgeschichtlichen Einordnung von Inkunabeln einer Interim-Sammlung (Verlag Ferd. Kleinmayr: Klagenfurt, Austria, 1950), 118. The Plenarium is number 56 in the list. 

[15] Ader Picard Tajan, Incunables et livres anciens provenant de la Fondation Fürstenberg-Beaumesnil (Hôtel Drouot: Paris, November 16, 1983), Lot 7. 

[16] Hans Fürstenberg, “Von alten Büchern. Ein Tätigkeitsbericht,“ Imprimatur: Ein Jahrbuch für Bücherfreunde, Neue Folge 8 (1976): 197–208; quotations are on 204 and 208, respectively. Quoted by Sutter, 131. My translations, and my thanks to Dr. Sutter for all his help!

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