Archive
Looting

The library of the Sabatinis

After decades of pretending to know nothing about it, Mainz University library reluctantly returns Nazi loot of precious books

Mainz

Thanks to the initiative of a student researcher, a valuable Italian library looted by German troops during World War II returns to its owners at last. It was “hidden” at Mainz university library for over four decades—with the knowledge of the library’s directors.

The 1,200 manuscripts, incunabula and sixteenth- and seventeenth-century books belong to the Sabatinis of Pescocostanza. The family fled the German troops in September 1943. On their return in March 1944, the 10,000-volume library, baroque furniture and oil paintings had disappeared.

How exactly the books came to Mainz is yet unknown. They were stored in the University library after the university was founded in 1945. Library directors must have known about the true owners from 1947 onwards, when a library assistant realised from owners’ stamps in the books where they belonged. He took four books to Italy and offered them to the Sabatinis in exchange for food. The library director fired him for theft, but did not contact the family. After twenty years, another librarian noticed the uncatalogued treasure. He researched the addresses of the sons of Gaetano Sabatini, the last great book collector of the family, and even visited the family grave at Pescocostanza. But afraid to lose his job, he avoided getting in touch. However, on his return he wrote a report to Mr Sauter, the university library’s new director, who returned it to him the day he retired, commenting that he had “never seen it”. Recently the student researcher, Anja Oehlers, came across the books. When the new director, Mr Anderhup declined to act, she at last informed the Sabatinis. Incredibly, the university’s law office first argued that by “sitting on the books” for so many years, the university had acquired ownership. But the university agreed eventually to return the loot.

The books are in a poor state of conservation; since they did not officially exist they were of course not restored.

And it is the Sabatini family which is paying for their transport back to Italy.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 11 October 1991