A mystery mineral collection finds a way home

Jan. 9, 2006

by Terry Devitt

Photo of Westphal holding minerals

Klaus Westphal, retired director of the Geology Museum, holds a prehistoric stone knife, one of several artifacts in an old cigar box of minerals that are about to be repatriated by the Geology Museum to Wurzburg University in Germany.

Photo: Jeff Miller

The old wooden cigar box was left on the museum doorstep. Inside was a small collection of minerals, a piece of petrified wood, a prehistoric stone knife, and some loose antique labels.

The minerals were ordinary, except, perhaps, for a beautiful, cool green aquamarine crystal - the shape and size of one of the cigars the tidy box once held. But the box also harbored a puzzle. Where did the collection come from? To whom did the minerals belong?

That silent delivery was made more than 20 years ago when Klaus Westphal still directed the Geology Museum at UW-Madison. The box had arrived with some anticipation, as a few days before Westphal had received a call from a retired geography professor inquiring about a donation to the museum's collections.

The call had come from the late Clarence Olmstead, then a retired UW-Madison professor of geography. The collection came into Olmstead's hands during the final days of World War II when he was a young U.S. Navy ensign working in Germany for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA.

Olmstead didn't remember exactly where the minerals came from, Westphal recalls, but they had been found, along with the cigar box, in the charred rubble of a German city. Olmstead's job during the war, according to UW-Madison geography colleague James Knox, was to be among the first people into newly captured areas to obtain map collections, which provided the Allies with valuable military intelligence.

Because the mineral collection was somewhat ordinary, and because the flow of materials through a museum like UW-Madison's is more than enough to keep its tiny staff busy, the mineral collection was relegated to a shelf for more than two decades and lay mostly forgotten in a museum storeroom.

But in retirement, Westphal kept returning to the box, wondering where it might have come from: "I sat in front of that box for I don't know how long," says Westphal, who still spends two days a week working at the museum he once directed. "It had a story to tell."

Westphal's interest was kindled, in part, by the fact that he is a native Berliner, and as a young child during World War II he remembers well the horrors of the war and its aftermath.

Studying the box, Westphal noticed a splotch of red ink, faded by age to an illegible smudge. With the help of a magnifying glass and a black light, Westphal was able to make out a few letters that identified the name of the cigar shop and a city: Wurzburg.

Wurzburg is an ancient city whose origins may go as far back as 1,000 B.C. Its cathedral was consecrated in the presence of Charlemagne in the year 788. It has a renowned university, one of the oldest in Europe. Both the city and the university were almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing during the final stages of World War II.

It must have been there, Westphal thought, that Olmstead had come by the mineral collection.

Following the lead, Westphal sent a few of the labels from the mineral specimens to the Institute of Mineralogy at the University of Wurzburg. There, Professor Hartwig Frimmel was able to match the labels, which included the name of the mineral, its locality and a number, with old university records.

"We searched for old records and eventually found, indeed, an old catalog with all the sample numbers. We could match the given numbers with the description of the samples," Frimmel explained in an e-mail.

The university was located in the old city center and, according to Frimmel, the central regions of Wurzburg were utterly destroyed toward the end of the war: "From photos I have seen in several museums, it is pretty clear that not a single building survived. This included the university - there was nothing left but ruins."

The details of how Olmstead, who died in December 2000, came by the small mineral collection may never be known. But by leaving them on the doorstep of the UW-Madison Geology Museum, he unknowingly ensured their return to Wurzburg. Westphal shipped the specimens back to Germany in December.

Today, on a hill overlooking the old city, is the University of Wurzburg's Institute of Mineralogy, Crystallography, Petrology and Geochemistry.

"There, we have now a very nice mineralogical museum attracting many visitors, students and school kids," notes Frimmel, "and it is in that museum where we intend to display the repatriated samples."