The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at the University of Michigan recently returned a 3200-year-old Egyptian artifact to the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin after research revealed that the piece had been looted from the Berlin Museum during World War II.
The artifact, a glazed stone funerary stela made for a man named Ptahmose around 1250 B.C., came to the Kelsey Museum as part of a donation of the collection of Samuel A. Goudsmit, an internationally known physicist and enthusiastic amateur Egyptologist. Goudsmit served in Germany at the end of World War II as part of the Alsos Project, an American mission that was investigating German nuclear energy and weapons development, and acquired the artifact from a private collector in Germany in 1945. The artifact came to the Kelsey in 1981 as part of the donation of Goudsmit's collection after his death.
Recent research by Dutch Egyptologist Nico Staring noted the similarity of the artifact to an object from the Berlin Ägyptisches Museum, assumed to have been lost in the bombing of the museum in World War II. Staring, with the assistance of Kelsey Museum curators Janet Richards and Terry Wilfong, ultimately proved that the Kelsey artifact was, in fact, the Berlin stela, apparently looted from the damaged museum and later sold to Goudsmit.
Upon this discovery, the Kelsey Museum alerted the authorities in Berlin, who investigated further and confirmed that this was indeed their artifact. The Kelsey Museum curators were in immediate agreement that the artifact had to be returned to Germany. The University of Michigan supported the Kelsey Museum's desire to return the artifact and, after a formal process to de-accession the piece from the Kelsey, plans were made for its return. On April 26th, Kelsey Museum Collections Manager Sebastián Encina took the artifact to New York, where Ägyptisches Museum director Dr. Frederike Seyfried was waiting. After a formal hand-over of the artifact, Dr. Seyfried took it back to Berlin, where it will soon go on display again, some seventy years after it was last on view in Germany.
The German authorities have been very appreciative of the Kelsey Museum's efforts to return the artifact, and have offered to make a 3-D scan of the piece, from which we can create a replica for display in Ann Arbor. In this virtual form, the artifact will continue to teach us about Egyptian funerary art and practice, but will also serve as a reminder of the complex paths museum artifacts travel and the value and importance of provenance.