World Coins

Künker returns coin missing since 1945

A gold coin missing since World War II was returned to its home in Germany recently.

Images courtesy of Fritz Rudolf Künker.

A gold coin missing since World War II was returned to its home in Germany recently.

The coin was officially returned to the Klassik Stiftung Weimar (the Weimar Classics Foundation) during a March 8 ceremony. Ulrich Künker, executive director of the Osnabrück-based auction house Fritz Rudolf Künker, made the presentation to the institution.

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The item he returned — a gold coin from 1687 — had been sold by the firm in its 2018 Berlin auction on Feb. 1, 2018. Before transferring ownership to the winning buyer, the auction house learned that the coin may have been the example missing since 1945. 

The coin is an off-metal strike in gold, weighing 6 grams, of a taler that is known in numismatics as the “Alchemistentaler.” 

The unique example was created at the request of Frederick I of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg in 1687. The design is known in gold 10-ducat and silver taler examples, but the gold 6-ducat coin is unique.  

Frederick had the piece minted at the Gotha mint to celebrates the duke’s love of alchemy. Frederick owned an alchemic laboratory at Friedenstein Castle. He spent a lot of money on alchemists and their formulas attempting to find a way to cover public expenses with “chemical” gold. 

The notes Frederick took of his alchemic experiments have been preserved at the state archives of Thüringen in Gotha. 

“While we might want to laugh about such dreams, our modern-day chemistry did in fact develop from Baroque alchemy,” an announcement from the auction house observes.

Numerous alchemic symbols on the reverse of the Alchemistentaler make reference to the conversion of base metals into precious metals: through the process of vaporization, the starting products salt, sulfur, and mercury were intended to be turned into the end products gold and silver with the aid of the philosopher’s stone.

The object’s history

In the Baroque age, it was common to exchange gifts with related, acquainted and allied princely courts. 

That included the use of gold examples of coins, which were particularly popular presents. That likely explains the existence of the 6-ducat taler returned by Künker.

The firm suggests that perhaps  Frederick I of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg gave that example to William Ernest of Saxe-Weimar as a gift, which would explain how it ended up in the coin collection of Klassik Stiftung Weimar. 

The organization is one of the largest and most significant cultural institutions in Germany. 

What happened to it?

After World War II, the coin was stolen from Weimar in 1945, along with a total of 200 other numismatic items. 

A large portion of the stolen items, including the piece in question, were sold by the auction house Grunthal & Ganz in New York in 1950.

Ever since then, it had been in a private collection, until it was consigned through Künker in 2017. 

Its possible provenance was first researched and archives in Gotha were consulted to see if the piece might have been part of their collection and whether or not it might have gone missing. 

As this was not the case, the coin was then auctioned Feb. 1, 2018, and sold for €34,400 ($42,7672 U.S.), including buyer’s fee and VAT. 

After the sale, but before delivery to the buyer, suspicion was raised that the coin might have been stolen from the Weimar Collection. Künker said it immediately began to resolve this case. After the suspicion was proven to be true, Künker’s executives decided to restitute this significant piece of historical importance.

Reasons for the return

Ulrich Künker discussed the motivation for the return in remarks during the ceremony. 

“My partner and I decided that Weimar’s property had to be returned to its original collection irrespective of all legal contingencies,” he said. “We paid off the consignor and informed the buyer that we would not be able to transfer its ownership as it was a stolen item. The auction house has born all costs incurred in the restitution of the rare piece.

“I am one of the most fervent critics of the German cultural property law that was passed in 2016,” he said. “I criticize that it puts all dealers under general suspicion of only being interested in profit. That is not true. We as dealers accept our societal responsibility. The return of this piece is just one of many pieces of evidence for that. There is a long tradition of a generous approach to public coin cabinets among coin enthusiasts: dealers and collectors have always primarily cared about promoting numismatics as a field of research. In this regard, there have never been any reservations between collectors, dealers and curators, but instead it has always been a close cooperation. This cooperation was threatened by the introduction of the new law. The law’s supporters have actively attempted to drive a wedge between the representatives of public collections and private collectors as well as dealers. In a sense, this return should be considered a symbol: We will not be driven apart. This restitution costs a lot of money. But we gladly spent it for this good cause. I hope this gold Alchemistentaler receives the well-deserved attention of an interested public audience it deserves in its old and new home.” 

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