Regrettably, all war involves destruction and theft of the losing side. Thus it’s no surprise that the aftermath of the Second World War was one of the greatest transfers of wealth in human history—through war spoils as well as more disinterested “looting” from the rubble of Europe.
We’ve come to associate looting with riots, chaos, and lawlessness because these are indeed the conditions in which mass looting often takes place. When done systematically in the course of war, it’s more often referred to as “pillaging.”
However, not all looting is quite so nefarious: many surviving Allied soldiers returning from WWII brought back mundane items, such as an old German boot, or some other trifling memento from the battlefield, that allowed them to salvage some shred of humanity in an inhumane conflict. In the case of more highly valued artifacts such as precious metals, antiquities, cultural items, or family heirlooms, this looting is obviously a far less innocent offense.
A group of such relics taken from Austria during the war have finally been repatriated thanks to years of numismatic sleuthing that is helping tilt the arc of history toward greater justice.
Saving Historic Coins
Some seven decades after they were taken from their hiding place in a salt mine in Salzburg, Austria, a huge cache of rare gold and silver medieval coins made their way back to the Salzburg Museum last month. Their recovery, identification, and ultimate repatriation were only made possible through the noble efforts of the American Numismatic Society (ANS) and the numismatic community.
A renowned American numismatist, the late Chester L. Krause, is credited with becoming aware of this issue and buying up the coins to keep the off of the market. He quietly accumulated any coins he suspected of being looted from Europe during the war, then carefully researched their backstories in order to trace their provenance.
In 1995, Krause donated the previously looted coins he had accumulated to the ANS, which took up the mantle of authenticating and researching the coins further. Because these coins were so rare, in some cases this was a rather easy identification process. Moreover, many of the coins in question bore ink markings that matched coins that once appeared in the inventories of the Salzburg Museum.
In a ceremony held about a month ago, the hoard of coins was finally returned to its rightful place.
The collection includes 94 historic and rare coins stolen from the region. This only represents a small portion of the more than 2,500 coins that remained missing from the museum after the war in 1955. Naturally, some of the American collectors who were in possession of these looted coins demanded (and received) compensation for their return.
Included in the hoard was a gold florin that was struck at the Salzburg Mint during the 14th century, making it the first gold coin type that the mint ever issued. Also included was a silver pfennig from around the turn of the second millennium CE. The pfennig was a valuable coin during medieval times, dating as far back as the 9th century, but by the 19th and 20th centuries, it was a lowly denomination. Not coincidentally, it is the source of the word “penny” in various languages.
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