Riches from the Rubble

12.04.2022Riches from the Rubble

It is not unusual for items to be returned to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin from private collections. But not long ago, the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte was given a set of artifacts that surpassed all expectations. The roughly 1,500 objects from the pre-war collection of the museum had been kept in the studio of Peter Grämer, an artist in West Berlin. He had excavated them from the ruins of the Martin-Gropius-Bau building (then the Kunstgewerbemuseum, or Museum of Decorative Arts) during the 1960s. In 2021, his widow, Christine Weber, approached the SPK to return the items, as she describes in the interview below.

The interview was conducted by Elena Then

Box with multiple archaelogical artifacts
Find from the ruin © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Ms. Weber, how did your husband acquire the objects?

Christine Weber: In 1960, when he was a student at the Hochschule der Künste (University of the Arts) in Berlin, my husband lived near the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Potsdamer Strasse. He was studying painting, so he liked to explore his surroundings. The ruins of the old museums were especially interesting, because of course as a painter, he studied works of classical antiquity and artifacts from other cultures. He was very interested in archeology his entire life, and he recorded excavations in drawings. When he was a student, between 1960 and 1965, he found objects in the rubble and kept them safe.

How and when did you learn where these objects had come from?

I lived with Peter Grämer from 1978 onward. He had various art objects in his atelier. They were an inspiration for his painting. In 1999, when we moved from Berlin to Potsdam, I noticed that there were cardboard boxes and crates with shards and other art objects. That was when my husband took the opportunity to tell me about his expeditions to the ruins in the 1960s.

Archaelogical artifacts on a plain surface
Find from the ruin © Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Why did it take so long for him to talk about it, even to you?

It just wasn't anything that was on our minds. It was something from his student days, and those days were over when we met. We were fully occupied with our careers, his as a freelance painter, and mine as a teacher. Until 1999, we lived in the abandoned building that used to be the Estonian embassy in the Tiergarten district of Berlin. That building and the neighboring ruins of the Greek embassy gave us enough to talk about, and we were kept busy by the things that had to be done to stay there and make sure we could continue to live there.

What made you approach us now?

In the later years of his life, after we had moved again, this time from Potsdam to the Zehlendorf district of Berlin, my husband often said that he definitely wanted to return to the museum everything he had found during the “excavations” of his student days, because he always saw himself as just a temporary guardian of these cultural artifacts destroyed by the war. Unfortunately, he didn't manage to do that before he died. He also didn't know how he should go about it. After his death, I was faced with the task of putting both his own works of art and the objects he excavated into the right hands.

Three years after his death, I had the good fortune to meet Katharina Ribbe through friends of mine, and she put me in touch with the SPK and helped me to return the items. I am glad that I found that support. It's important to know who to turn to, first of all. I am very thankful and happy that the objects are now being properly stored again, and that they will hopefully survive and can be used for future studies.

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