Provenance research at the DSM: An old engine and its history in the NS era

In 1911 the Regensburg fulling and knitting factory owner Nathan Forchheimer ordered a single-cylinder four-stroke engine from MAN. The engine has been part of the collection of the German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History since 1976, but its origin was long unclear. Now, in the course of its provenance research, the museum has discovered that the engine was unlawfully confiscated from the former company owners during the Nazi era. The heirs were located through an elaborate process and their legal property is now being restituted. They will conclude a permanent loan agreement with the German Maritime Museum (DSM) so that the engine can continue to be exhibited.

How did such an engine get into the DSM? According to a newspaper article in the Nordsee-Zeitung in 1976, it came into the possession of the museum after having previously served as an emergency generator on an estate. Before it was used as a museum object, it was overhauled by MAN so that it could be exhibited in full working order as an example of earlier forms of propulsion. The engine is also to be given a permanent place in the new permanent exhibition that DSM is currently designing. Further information on the engine can be found in the Lost Art Database (

The starting point for the discovery of the unlawful possession was the question of what role the motor played in shipping and the knowledge that it came from Regensburg and was owned by Jewish people there. Dr. Kathrin Kleibl, provenance researcher at the DSM, thereupon went looking for further details and found out that the Forchheimer family, pushed by the Nazi regime, was forced to sell the company to the Rathgeber company far below its value and subsequently emigrated to the USA. All equipment of the predecessor company went to the Rathgeber company after the purchase contract and remained in the company, be it employees, machines or materials. This also applies to the engine examined by the museum. Kleibl set out in search of the descendants, which was made more difficult by the fact that they changed their names when they entered the USA.

The descendants of Forchheimer, who have now lived in the United States for several generations around Pennsylvania, Illinois and Florida, would like to see the engine preserved by the museum. They have agreed to give the engine to the DSM on a permanent loan on condition that it is accompanied by a note on its history. A plaque with a note on the original owners of the engine and a reappraisal of its history in the course of the persecution and emigration of the family will be placed next to it in the future.

The emigration history of the Forchheimers is extraordinary: Rosalie Forchheimer, widow of the company founder Nathan Forchheimer, only left Germany shortly before the beginning of the war in 1939. While the other members of the family had already emigrated to the U.S. in 1938, she continued to maintain the house belonging to her property, which bordered the sold company premises. She took in many people persecuted as Jews there at low rent until she was pressured to sell the house under the political pressure of the Rathgeber company. The reason given was that the "Aryan" employees of the company did not tolerate the Jewish tenants during their break.

Kleibl's research also revealed that the family's company building of that time still existed. Today it houses a boarding school. The school director was inspired by the DSM's research to initiate a history project with his students in which they work through the biography of the house. 

The process of locating possible descendants of an object to be restituted is always individual and often involves detective work. In this case it was possible to reconstruct a family tree by using several genealogical databases. Obituaries of the deceased son of Karl Forchheimer in turn provided names of his children. In the end Kleibl came across an heiress working as a teacher, who immediately contacted other family members. 
The research took place within the framework of a three-year provenance research project at the DSM, which is financed by the German Center for Loss of Cultural Property in Magdeburg. In this context, the DSM systematically examines its holdings for cultural property unlawfully confiscated during the Nazi era.


Press contact

Thomas Joppig

0471 482 07 832

The soon to be restituted engine, which will be available to DSM on permanent loan

Foto: DSM


The factory of the Forchheimer family in Regensburg, photo taken before 1938

Foto: privat



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