The Green Collection’s “Block Book” and What It Means to Own a Cultural Heritage Item

During the “Passages” Speaker Series in Charlotte, North Carolina in 2012 and 2013, it was customary for Jerry Pattengale to host the evening talks and to provide updates on the development of the Green Collection. In one of these updates, Pattengale briefly described some of the circumstances surrounding the Green Collection’s purchase of a particular book. What he said helps us to understand what it can mean for the Green Collection to “own” some of its artifacts. At about 5 minutes into his introduction for Kenneth Schenck’s talk, while showing a slide of a German city, Pattengale commented as follows:

“Not too far away from this library, um, is, uh, um, the Wolfenbüttel, um, Museum, and in our exhibit you’ll see–it’s either the real copy or the facsimile; I don’t know which one we have traded out right now. But one of the items in, in the ‘Passages’ exhibit is one of the ten treasures of all of Germany. And so what we did is we were able to purchase it, and then leave it in Germany, because we can’t by law of Germany bring it out of the country permanently, so we borrow it for six months, and then they keep it for six months or whatever.”

In his introduction to one of the last lectures in this Charlotte series (given by Ben Outhwaite), Pattengale identified this item more precisely as a copy of Der Antichrist und die fünfzehn Zeichen vor dem Jüngsten Gericht (“The Antichrist and the Fifteen Signs Before Doomsday”), a xylograph, or book printed from woodcuts, with many illustrations. These books, produced in Germany in the fifteenth century, are quite rare and valued among collectors.

Woodcut illustration from Der Antichrist

Illustration from Der Antichrist; image source: Münchener DigitalisierungsZentrum

This copy had previously been in the collection of Otto Schäfer and was at that time digitized, as part of an effort to make an online collection of xylograph books. It was then sold in 2007. After apparently passing through the inventory of Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books, the book was purchased by the Green Collection at some point before early 2012, when the book appeared as part of the Green Collection in online promotional material. At the same time, it was put on display at the Herzog August Library in Germany. At about 5 minutes into his introduction of this latter talk, Pattengale spoke about various other exhibitions of Green Collection materials:

Pattengale Der Antichrist

Pattengale also provided some additional details about the purchase of the xylograph:

“We have the Block Book on display, uh, at Wolfenbüttel. It’s one of the ten treasures of all of Germany. And so, it’s part of the Green Collection. But how this takes place is–You’re allowed to buy these items; you just can’t take them out of the country unless they loan them to you. So what we’ve been able to do is we’ve been able to purchase it so that we can make facsimiles, help the library out. And so, um, it’s just exciting.”

Pattengale spelled out the plan further in an article in the Washington Post on 7 January 2013:

The Antichrist is a xylographic block book, a medium that assisted illiterate masses by having prominent illustrations of the accompanying text, and remains on Germany’s Kulturgüterliste (held in the Woffenbuttel Library). . . A facsimile is displayed at the Passages exhibit in Charlotte, NC, and the real one will be on occasional display when the Green Collection opens its national museum in Washington, D.C.”

This is an interesting arrangement. The Green Collection buys an item from a foreign owner, leaves the item in the country of the previous owner because of cultural heritage laws, and then has the privilege receiving the item “on loan”  (from themselves?) and displaying it as a part of the “Passages” exhibition and at the Museum of the Bible. I wonder how common this sort of practice is among museums? (Again, this is an honest question–I actually don’t know if this is a normal practice or not.) The Green Collection “owns” the object insofar as they can, to some extent, control its movements, but they cannot actually possess it in the way that museums traditionally “own” artifacts.

An additional question is how Dr. Jörn Günther Rare Books fits into the mix. If, in fact, the Green Collection was unable to export the book out of Germany, then how did a dealer based in Switzerland came to be in possession of the book? Perhaps through the same type of arrangement used by the Green Collection? Although Pattengale mentioned that the book was destined for display at the museum in Washington, D.C., this book does not seem to appear among the pieces on the Museum of the Bible’s “Provenance” page. Hopefully that will change sometime soon.



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