Kidnapping A Brainchild

In late August 2012, the German press reported the “discovery” of a long lost manuscript. Erwin Panofsky’s habilitation thesis on Michelangelo reemerged from a vault in the cellar of Munich’s Central Institute for the History of Art, founded in 1946. This was celebrated as though a medieval ship wreck had been hauled up from the bottom of the sea.

Yet this story is anything but romantic. Panofsky, a preeminent art historian, had been forced into emigration in 1933/1934. After he had left the University of Hamburg, Ludwig Heinrich Heydenreich, interim director of the Institute of Art History, must have found the manuscript in Panofsky’s drawers.

Heydenreich later became director of precisely the Munich institution where the document now surfaced. Being himself a student of Panofsky, Heydenreich held contact to Panofsky, now in Princeton, after World War II – even at a major event in Munich in 1967, without ever uttering a word to the owner and author of the manuscript.

A cold-hearted crime

As Horst Bredekamp, who meticulously attempted to reconstruct the lost thesis twenty years ago, now writes, this behaviour is inexcusable. Whatever may have motivated Heydenreich, the crude fact remains: He had torn away a special piece of work from his teacher, he had kidnapped a brainchild of his, deprived the author of the fruits it might have borne at the time and the option to fill a gap in his memories after severely traumatizing times.

This story is not one of a treasure detected on a sea bed. It is a case of merciless, cold-hearted embezzlement. In short: A crime.

Caroline Fetscher, a trained art historian, is an editor and columnist with the “Tagesspiegel” in Berlin

Read the full story and an exclusive interview with Horst Bredekamp, Professor of Art History at Humboldt University in Berlin

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