Peter Berghaus (1919-2012)

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by Ursula Kampmann

November 22, 2012 – On November 16, 2012 Peter Berghaus died just four days before his 93rd birthday. Even during his last months he was keeping his mind alive. With him we have lost one of the most eminent numismatists of Europe whose cooperative character strongly influenced the world of collectors and researchers.

Thinking of Peter Berghaus I feel again affected by the fear I felt once preparing a paper I intended to read at the coin collectors’ convention in Minden. Incorruptible, they called Peter Berghaus. When he spotted an error, he always called your attention on that point, even in front of all the listeners. And he did so with all referees indiscriminately, with world renowned professors or a novice like me at that time. Actually, Peter Berghaus was more than friendly with me. He didn’t use any of these simulated commonplace phrases and clichés. No, he discussed with me at an eye level. But he did so not only with me. Peter Berghaus was, indeed, one of the great teachers of numismatics who was able to rejoice at the achievement of others. He took seriously innumerous people and stimulated all those who loved coins like him and wished to research into them, young students and advanced collectors alike.

Peter Berghaus was born on November 20, 1919 in Hamburg being the youngest of four children. How to summarize his childhood and youth? He lost his parents when he still was young. And, naturally, he started collecting, when he was a schoolboy attending the Johanneum whose long tradition went back until 1529. Of course, he did not just collect coins like many of us have done. Peter Berghaus focused on countermarks. And thanks to that he was accorded the honour of being admitted into the circle of the numismatic association of Hamburg ‘Hamburger Münzfreunde’ when he was only 18 years old. Thinking of today’s coin associations and how they are glad about every new young collector, one cannot appreciate it too much. In 1937 this association was frequented only by well heeled elderly gentlemen like Friedrich Bonhoff or Bruno Dorfmann who demanded two guarantors before allowing the new member to attend their meetings. After all there were coins lying on the table which equaled to an average weekly worker’s revenue.

Neither Peter Berghaus was spared the military service. Nearby Würzburg he was wounded so severely on April 5, 1945, that he lost his left forearm. After the war he took up his university studies. Walter Hävernick, who was director of the museum of Hamburg’s history at the epoch, became his teacher.

Peter Berghaus did a PhD with a methodically innovative research entitled ‘Currency frontiers of the territory of the Upper Weser in Westfalia in the late Middle Ages.’ Then everything went quickly. In 1949 he completed training at the coin cabinet of the museum of Hamburg’s history. In the following year, 1950, he joined the Westfälisches Landesmuseum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte in Münster which he was in charge of as a director between 1977 and 1984. Contemporarily he supervised the numismatic juniors at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität.
Anyway, we do not want to make this obituary too dull by listing all the honorary professorships and fellowships that he obtained, because Peter Berghaus was so much more than a simple accumulation of titles.

In my opinion the most remarkable aspect in his person was his capacity of thinking independently and choosing all over again new and, particularly, international ways. In 1949, only four years after the war, he was invited to Stockholm by Willy Schwabacher. He initiated the international cooperation of working on the Viking findings from the eastern Baltic Sea area. Since 1972 Peter Berghaus travelled to India where he not only studied Roman material but, above all, took a stand for the people. Together with his friends from the Rotary Club he collected millions of German Marks for the benefit of aid schemes in India, for pumps and latrines, children’s homes and hospitals.

Today Peter Berghaus’s commitment in the interest of collectors seems nearly kind of an idyllic past. In 1951 he was Spiritus Rector of the coin collectors’ association of Westfalia and the neighbouring territories. Between 1972 and 1992 he was vice president of the German Numismatic Association (Deutsche Numismatische Gesellschaft). And in 1979 he was elected Vice President of the International Numismatic Commission.

We could continue nearly forever because virtually every collector or researcher of a certain generation knows some story about how they met this significant man. We all have taken so much from Peter Berghaus that there is just one thing we can do according to his principles: passing on the knowledge to colleagues, collectors, students, and all those who can enjoy the stories coins are telling.