Beyond the Image: The Fate of the Magdeburg Amphora During WWII

Charlotte Kowalski unexpectedly encountered a tale of loss of cultural heritage that links Attic red-figure vase painting to the height of World War II.

Neck amphora (Kg.K.34.67, ARV2 565,38) by the Pig Painter dated to c. 500-450 BC . Credit: Kulturhistorisches Museum Magdeburg, reproduced with permission.

Sydney, 2019

In the quest to publish a book, many stories are gathered along the way and while working behind the scenes to obtain photographs for Professor Alexander Cambitoglou’s forthcoming book, the following story was unearthed. The story begins with an email sent to a German museum, requesting a photograph of an amphora by the Pig Painter (pictured above). From there unfolded the history of the vase and its links with greater tales of cultural destruction, looting and restitution brought about during the Second World War. In January 2019 the Kulturhistorisches Museum in Magdeburg was contacted for an image of a red-figure neck-amphora by the Pig Painter (ARV2 565,38) to be published in Professor Alexander Cambitoglou’s forthcoming volume The Attic Red-figure Neck-amphora. The response received from Dr Ulrike Theisen, Curator of the Archaeology Department, seemed to be at first disheartening – the neck-amphora (Kg.K.34.67) along with its record was destroyed during World War II. This amphora, however, has its own story to tell and thanks are owed to Dr Ulrike Theisen for researching the history of the vase.

Kulturhistorisches-Museum-Magdeburg. (Photo: Eddy 1988: Public Domain)

Red-figured pottery, such as this amphora, were manufactured in Athens between the fifth and fourth centuries BC. The remarkable state of preservation of the vase likely indicates it was deposited in a grave as a funeral offering. The iconography of the amphora itself is simple, featuring a man and a woman on either side holding items of everyday value including a piece of fruit and a skein of wool. In this case the mundane decoration was indicative of its ordinary function. Amphorae were designed primarily for the storage of liquids including wine and oil. Perhaps co-incidentally the donor of this vase was in the business of manufacturing oil. The Hubbe Family had been manufacturing edible oils in Germany since the 1830s. Herbert Hubbe joined the company in 1927 and by the 1930s the company, became one of the leading producers of coconut and palm oils in Germany. It was on 7 July 1934, during this successful period, when Herbert Hubbe donated the amphora to the museum. He in turn had purchased the amphora from Anne Marie Kemma of Breslau (Wrocław, Poland) for 400 Reichsmark. The amphora, having survived intact for over 2000 years, would reside in the museum for just over a decade before being destroyed alongside innumerable other works of cultural significance in the years of upheaval that were to follow.

Germany, 1945

The Allies were dropping bombs on German cities and on 16 January 1945, Magdeburg was in their sights. In one night, 90 percent of the picturesque city of Magdegurg, situated on the Elbe River in Northern Germany was destroyed. 2000 people lost their lives and 190 000 more were rendered homeless. This was not the first time Magdeburg had faced destruction on a monumental scale. In 1631 during the 30 years war, much of the city was reduced to rubble and large parts remained so until 1720.

Centre of Madeburg overlooking the River Elbe, showing the severe bomb damage to buildings and warehouses in the vicinity of the wharves. (Photo: Penfold – Royal Airforce Official Photographer: Public Domain)

Aside from the human tragedy of that night in 1945, there was also a substantial cultural impact. Among the buildings damaged was the Kaiser Friedrich Museum (now the Kulturhistorisches Museum), which had been founded in 1906 by Theodor Volbehr (1862-1931). To protect the collections from damage caused by frequent bombings in the latter stages of the war, the more valuable works, including over 400 paintings were temporarily re-located to a salt mine near Staßfurt. The most famous of these works was Die Tritonenfamilie by Arnold Böcklin. The paintings probably survived the Allied bombings that destroyed the majority of Magdeburg in January 1945 but in a twist of fate, just hours before the arrival of US troops in April 1945 a devastating fire broke out in the mine in which all paintings were likely destroyed (https://www.lootedart.com/news.php?r=R43N4K428041).

This is a story that was repeated throughout Europe as museum collections were plundered, relocated and even destroyed. Many cultural treasures are still missing, their fate unknown, yet progress has been made with a stream of restitutions occurring in recent years. The return of Gustav Klimt’s Masterpiece, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, among the most famous. Though we often focus on the loss of masterpieces in World War II, such as Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man, countless other everyday cultural objects were also lost and by rediscovering their stories, including that of the amphora by the Pig Painter we come closer to piecing together the whole story.

Charlotte Kowalski received her BA (Hons) in Archaeology from the University of Sydney. Her association with the AAIA began in 2014 when she was a participant in the excavations of Zagora. Upon her graduation she was offered a role at the AAIA, where she worked for three years providing research and library management support across a diverse range of projects, including acquiring digital images and copyright permissions for three academic publications. Since then she has pursued a career with the University of Sydney Library, working across both Fisher and Conservatorium Libraries. 

Contacts

Dr Stavros Paspalas – Acting Director
Australian Archaeological Institute at Athens, Room 480, Madsen Building (F09), University of Sydney NSW 2006 Australia
+61 2 9351 4759 +61 (0)2 9351 7693 arts.aaia@sydney.edu.au