The Repatriation of Incunables

Switzerland in the USA
6 min readDec 9, 2022

During the Second World War, a historic and invaluable medieval book vanished from Switzerland and eventually resurfaced in New York City in the 1940s. After being preserved at the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., the priceless artifact returns this year to its original home in Fribourg, Switzerland. A few weeks later yet another historic book that emerged in the United States will be able to be returned to Switzerland after decades of disappearance. The Embassy of Switzerland in the United States was able to connect the relevant representatives of both countries and help with both repatriation processes.

Das Narrenschiff, or “The Ship of Fools” in English, was written by Professor Sebastian Brant in 1494 and was first published in Basel, known at the time as Switzerland’s capital for printing and bookbinding. The book was a literature phenomenon at the time. It was extraordinarily popular and was translated into several languages (including into English in 1509). One of the reasons for its popularity was its portrayal of quotidian events. The texts told satirical stories about ordinary people instead of royalty or knights. This book is one of the first literary texts written in the German language, and it was widely printed at a time when “bestsellers” were incredibly rare. Albrecht Dürer, a renowned German Renaissance artist, contributed engravings to the first edition.

The significance of Das Narrenschiff are its unique satirical literary texts, beautiful drawings, and immense cultural significance. It is a piece of Swiss patrimony and a part of Switzerland’s cultural and humanist heritage. The book is a “contemporary witness of the innovation of printing and therefore the transformation of literature and the ways we share knowledge and culture.” explained Angélique Boschung, Director of the Cantonal and University Library of Fribourg. “History, archaeology and ancient artifacts are very important to understand the identity of our time. That is the reason why an artifact like an old book presenting another vision of the world, humanity, values, enriches us today” added Jean-Robert Gisler, Professor of Classical Archeology at the University of Fribourg, and a specialist on trafficking of cultural property.

One of the first editions of this book belonged to the Capuchin community of Fribourg, a Catholic religious order. Between the 16th century and the Second World War, this first edition of Das Narrenschiff — along with other highly valued historical books referred to as incunables — was preserved in a monastery in the small medieval Swiss town of Fribourg, nestled on a plateau and surrounded on three sides by the Sarine River.

During the Second World War, this book, along with a number of other incunables, was stolen from the library of the Capuchin monastery. The theft was only discovered much later. The exact circumstances of this theft remain unsolved, but the book resurfaced in the United States in the 1940s. In 1979, it was gifted to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., where it remained until this year.

When the whereabouts of this invaluable book were discovered, the Swiss government together with the legal successors of the Capuchins, the Canton of Fribourg and its Cantonal and University Library (Bibliothèque cantonal et universitaire de Fribourg; BCU) started working intensively to secure the return of the book to Switzerland.

“Das Narrenschiff” manuscript with an engraving by Albrecht Dürer.

The repatriation of Das Narrenschiff took no less than 20 years. The theft was first discovered in 1975 and the Swiss government initiated a repatriation process more than 25 years later. By then, criminal proceedings were no longer possible due to the statute of limitation for theft.

The Library of Congress was contacted about a possible repatriation for the first time in 2003. In 2020, the Embassy of Switzerland in the United States was approached directly by the University Library of Fribourg. Discussions about a repatriation resumed with the Library of Congress. After extensive forensic investigations, the Library of Congress confirmed that the copy of the book in its possession had indeed originated from the Capuchins’ library. A hand-written inscription on the inside front cover was discovered, mentioning the initial owner of the book: Dietrich of Englisberg, a former bailiff, political leader and humanist of Fribourg.

Subsequently, the Library of Congress decided to return the book to Switzerland via the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, DC. The Swiss diplomatic representation in the United States facilitated discussions and negotiations between representatives from Fribourg and the Library of Congress. Finally in fall 2022, Boschung and Gisler travelled together to Washington, to repatriate Das Narrenschiff to Switzerland.

Jean-Robert Gisler, Professor of classical Archeology, and Angélique Boschung, Director of the Cantonal and University Library of Fribourg.

At the hand-over ceremony of the book at the Swiss Residence, Switzerland’s Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden agreed that cultural property is a concrete witness of culture and history that holds a special place for the identity of the individual as well as the community as a whole.

The Ambassador stated: “The Library of Congress’s repeated policy of returning looted cultural heritage to its place of origin is fully in line with the Swiss federal government’s commitment to maintaining of the cultural heritage of mankind and preventing theft, looting, and illicit import and export of cultural property.”

l.r. — Simon Kürsener, Head of Legal Section, Embassy; Dr. Stephanie Stillo, Acting Assistant Chief of the Rare Book Division at the Library of Congress; Jean-Robert Gisler, Professor of Classical Archeology; Angélique Pitteloud; Dr. Carla Hayden, Librarian of Congress; Jacques Pitteloud, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States; Angélique Boschung, Director of the Cantonal and University Library of Fribourg; Ramsey Ryan, Chief of Staff, Library of Congress; Marcellus Rolle, Head of Communications & Public Diplomacy, Embassy.

Wrapped in an air-sealed pouch, the medieval book travelled back on a nine hour plane ride to its hometown in Fribourg. This edition of Das Narrenschiff will be reunited with the other books of the Capuchins’ collection and be preserved and held at the University Library of Fribourg. It is now one of the most valuable items in the library.

Fast forward a few weeks and another book is on its way home to Switzerland.

De Memoria augenda is another incunable from the monastery of the Capuchins. It was printed in Strasbourg by Heinrich Knoblochtzer between 1476 and 1484. The text is a work by Matheolus Perusinus, a physician and philosopher from Perugia in Italy who died in 1480.

De Memoria augenda contains information about the human brain and its anatomical structure but also the art of memory.

Similar to Das Narrenschiff, the book had a long and turbulent journey. Between May and June 1975 it was stolen from the monastery’s library and shortly after it is said to have been offered for sale in Munich. There, it was bought by a bookseller from London before it was later acquired by an American collector, who then donated it to Washington University in St. Louis (MO). The University Library of Fribourg has been working intensively for years to secure the return of the stolen book.

Insight into the incunable De Memoria augenda.

After Washington University unequivocally determined the Swiss origin of the incunable De Memoria augenda, a handover ceremony took place again at the Residence of the Swiss Ambassador. The curator of rare books from Washington University, Ms. Cassie Brand, presented the book to Jacques Pitteloud who will ensure its safe journey back to the canton of Fribourg.

Signing ceremony between Cassie Brand, Curator of rare books from the Washington University in St. Louis, and Jacques Pitteloud, Swiss Ambassador to the United States.

Alongside Das Narrenschiff, De Memoria augenda represents an important artefact of Switzerland’s cultural heritage and helps preserve the history of Swiss humanism. The homecoming of the two silent witnesses to Fribourg, Switzerland, signifies a happy ending to an adventurous journey through several countries over six decades. The two books are an important part of the historical and cultural identity of both Fribourg and Switzerland.

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Switzerland in the USA

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