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Würzburg's Antique Treasures in Danger: Museum Launches Appeal for Donations


The Collection of Antiquities in the Martin von Wagner Museum at the University of Würzburg is at risk of losing numerous important loans. For this reason, those responsible have now launched a fundraising campaign.

Whoever drinks the last sip sees the Medusa. Jochen Griesbach-Scriba with a drinking bowl that was made around 540 BC.
Whoever drinks the last sip sees the Medusa. Jochen Griesbach-Scriba with a drinking bowl that was made around 540 BC. (Image: Gunnar Bartsch / JMU)

It is a scenario that no museum director wants to experience: a collector couple has repeatedly provided the museum with valuable pieces on permanent loan over many decades. Now - after the death of the couple - a descendant comes forward and demands the objects back. He wants to turn his inheritance into money; he generously grants the museum a right of first refusal.

Jochen Griesbach-Scriba has experienced exactly that. Griesbach-Scriba is Director of the Collection of Classical Antiquities at the Martin von Wagner Museum at the University of Würzburg. He received the news a good year ago - not good news. "It would be an enormous loss for the antiquities collection, which I can't compensate for," he says. Many of these permanent loans are shown as key objects for cultural contexts in exhibitions and guided tours, and there is only one other example of some of them in the world.

One Million Euros for a good 80 Objects

The problem is that the Martin von Wagner Museum does not have a budget for acquisitions. Accordingly, Griesbach-Scriba cannot simply write a check and "pay off" the heir, so to speak. For this reason, the antiquities collection has now launched a fundraising campaign. The aim is to prevent the sale with the help of many supporters so that the loans can continue to be presented to the public in Würzburg.

However, the hurdle is high: Griesbach-Scriba estimates that the nearly 80 objects could fetch around one million euros if they were sold on the art market. But even if the fundraising campaign only raises part of this sum, the museum would still be helped. Depending on the amount of the donations, Griesbach-Scriba will try to buy the objects that are high on his priority list first.

Italian Finds with Greek Roots

Wine amphorae, drinking vessels, small sculptures and everyday objects made of marble and bronze make up the majority of the loans, supplemented by a handful of paintings and precious objects kept in the painting gallery of the Martin von Wagner Museum. The exact place of discovery is unknown in most cases. However, the majority probably originate from what is now Italy, where they were used as grave goods. The fact that the ceramics in particular were made in Greece reveals a lot about the transfer of goods and ideas in the Mediterranean region in the period from the 7th century BC to the 4th century BC.

One such piece of Greek pottery is also at the top of Jochen Griesbach-Scriba's list: a bowl made around 540 BC. In shape, it resembles a fruit bowl standing decoratively in the middle of the table. In fact, it is a drinking vessel, the inside of which was painted all around with a series of warships. Filled with wine, the ships appeared to float on it.

Surprise at the Bottom of the Drinking Bowl

"These drinking bowls went from mouth to mouth at the Greek symposium," explains Griesbach-Scriba. It wasn't until the last sip that a surprise appeared: a so-called "Gorgoneion" - the head of Gorgo, probably better known here as Medusa - appeared at the bottom of the bowl. According to legend, she turns anyone who looks into her eyes to stone. Griesbach-Scriba estimates the value of this drinking bowl alone at 40,000 euros.

Selling the antique objects to private collectors would not only mean a painful loss for the Martin von Wagner Museum. The public would also lose valuable insights into life and thought in antiquity. "If such pieces end up in a private collection, no one benefits from them anymore," says Griesbach-Scriba. Only museums can guarantee that anyone interested can see them - three-dimensionally and in real life.

Around 10,000 visitors to the Collection of Classical Antiquities took advantage of this opportunity last year - many of them from abroad. They combined their visit to Würzburg with insights into the ancient world that can only be gained in a few places. Jochen Griesbach-Scriba hopes that this will continue to be the case in the future - thanks to the generous support of numerous donors.

Donation Account

Anyone wishing to support the purchase of the permanent loans with a donation can do so by transferring it to the following account: Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg, IBAN DE09 7905 0000 0000 0988 22, BIC: BYLADEM1SWU, reference "Antike".

By Gunnar Bartsch