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Peter Ilisch (1947–2023)

After a short, serious illness, Dr Peter Ilisch passed away at his daughter’s home in Bayonne in the south of France on 29 May 2023. He had been the curator of the Coin Collection of today’s LWL Museum for Art and Culture / Westphalian State Museum in Münster. Stefan Kötz MA, his successor in office, paid tribute to the deceased in a speech at the public funeral service on 20 June 2023 at the Central Cemetery in Münster.

Peter Ilisch (1947–2023). Photo: Verein der Münzfreunde für Westfalen und Nachbargebiete e. V., Axel Obdenbusch.

Peter Ilisch (1947–2023). Photo: Verein der Münzfreunde für Westfalen und Nachbargebiete e. V., Axel Obdenbusch.

I would like to start with three quotes, which are representative of the many comments I have heard, so I will not mention any names: “The death of Peter Ilisch saddens me, too. I had met him several times: I was immediately and deeply impressed by his eloquent expertise and his subtle manner.” – “This really moves me; I did not know him well, but you could just tell what a good person he was.” – “I, too, knew Peter Ilisch as an always approachable, patient and helpful advisor, who shared his immense knowledge with me throughout the decades. I will miss him dearly, both as a friend and professionally.”

Peter Ilisch’s death, too early by today’s standards, shocked everyone. The reactions to the news of his passing in the museum and the archaeological department, in the commissions and associations, the obvious dismay – in addition to “sad”, I heard the words “moved”, “sorrowful”, “bereaved”, “grief-stricken”, “shocked”, “staggered” –, the need to find words to remember, honour and immortalise him all show how profoundly shaken everyone was about this loss. Peter Ilisch was highly respected and appreciated by everyone, described as “considerate and friendly”, “helpful”, as “modest”, “unpretentious”, “humorous”, even as “amiable”. And therefore, Peter Ilisch belonged – and still belongs – not only to his family and his friends, but to all these people: “We won’t forget him – he was too much one of us.”

But who was Peter Ilisch? I am speaking to you as his successor in office since 2014, as the curator of the Coin Collection of the LWL Museum for Art and Culture / Westphalian State Museum in Münster and as the consultant for the conservation of coin finds at the LWL Archaeology for Westphalia. Therefore, I am talking about the official, the public figure, about the scholar Dr Peter Ilisch – not about him as a person, because actually I did not know him at all. Personal things that would allow others to get to know him on a personal level were not his thing; he only allowed very few people to truly see his personality, we all just looked at him as a colleague, as a scholar.

So, who was the scholar Dr Peter Ilisch? In the press release of the LWL (the Regional Association of Westphalia-Lippe) that announced his death, I characterised him with these words: “For decades, Peter Ilisch was one of the most productive and continues to be, beyond his death, one of the most respected numismatists for medieval and early modern coinage and for coin finds; at the same time, he was a committed regional historian for the Münsterland area. He thus promoted the name of the LWL Museum and of the LWL Archaeology beyond Münster and Westphalia into the world.” The latter, his international reputation and renown, is probably best illustrated by an anecdote that the museum director shared in 2012 in the commemorative publication for Peter Ilisch’s 65th anniversary (“Nummi docent! Münzen – Schätze – Funde”), apparently still somewhat stunned: “A couple of years ago, I travelled to the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, which has a renowned numismatic collection, for loan negotiations. The first question of the curator was: ‘You come from Münster? Do you know Peter?’” And that is exactly what could have happened in Utrecht, for instance: “Komt u uit Munster? Kent u Peter?” Or somewhere in his second home country of France: “Vous venez de Münster? Connaissez-vous Peter?” Or in Warsaw: “Czy pan pochodzi z Monastyru? Czy zna pan Petera?” There was hardly a congress that Dr Peter Ilisch did not attend – as a speaker, not just as a visitor – and his network was incredible.

Peter Ilisch was born on 28 April 1947 in Billerbeck in the western Münsterland region. He already discovered his passion for coins and numismatics as a schoolboy, as did his brother Lutz, who was some three years younger than him – and it was certainly a wise decision to have staked the claims early on. As a 14-year-old, he began to sit in on the monthly meetings of the “Münzfreunde Münster” coin club, and approached the Westphalian “state numismatist” at the State Museum, Prof Dr Peter Berghaus (1919–2012). From 1967 to 1971, he studied history, historical auxiliary sciences and folklore in Münster and learned about numismatics with Berghaus, who was an honorary professor at the Department of History. In 1974, he received his doctorate for a thesis on medieval and early modern coin finds and coin circulation in western and southern Westphalia. As early as from 1972 until 1974, he held a position as scientific trainee at the State Museum, where he – after having been commissioned for various tasks elsewhere and having worked as an assistant at the Institute for Religious Folklore Studies of the University of Münster from 1977 until 1978 – succeeded his teacher in the beginning of January 1979. Until he retired at the end of May 2012, Dr Peter Ilisch rendered enormous and lasting services to the numismatic collection and the museum as a whole throughout 401 months of service, by many thousands of acquisitions, by exhibitions and, above all, by his hundreds of publications.

Outside the museum, Dr Peter Ilisch participated in numerous commissions, committees and associations. He was state representative for Westphalia-Lippe in the Numismatic Commission of the States of the Federal Republic of Germany for the entirety of his time as curator, and he was deputy chairman from 1999 to 2001. Particularly noteworthy is a project to examine early mediaeval coin finds in Poland, which was carried out together with the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnology of the Polish Academy of Sciences, which started in 1996 and was completed from 2013 until 2017. Moreover, he was an ordinary member of two LWL commissions, the Antiquities Commission since 1992 and the Historical Commission since 1998; he contributed substantially to the research projects of both commissions, and not only numismatically. He was part of the coin club “Verein der Münzfreunde für Westfalen und Nachbargebiete” since 1964/65, from 1982 until 1990 as their secretary and since 2006 as a scholarly advisor on its board, in 2012 he became an honorary member. His lectures at the “Münzfreunde Münster” and other local coin clubs as well as at the events of the umbrella club “Verein der Münzfreunde” and throughout Germany are innumerable. He maintained close ties with the Netherlands since the 1970s, especially with the “Koninklijk Nederlands Genootschap voor Munt- en Penningkunde”. He also served in the “Förderverein für öffentliche Münzsammlungen in Westfalen” since it was founded in 2015 as their secretary and helped identify worthwhile acquisitions. He received several international awards, and his life’s work was honoured with the “Eligius Prize” of the German Numismatic Society in 2021.

In Münster, Dr Peter Ilisch was a typical “state numismatist”, who was responsible for the coin collection of the State Museum as well as for the conservation of coin finds within the state archaeology body. It is thanks to him that coin finds are systematically documented, published and examined in Westphalia-Lippe as historical and archaeological sources. And it was his idea as a “state numismatist” to combine numismatic and regional historical insights and to communicate these not only to experts but to a broad public. As a lecturer at the University of Münster since 2001, he continuously passed on his extensive knowledge to the next generation.

His scholarly work is very extensive, starting in 1969, he published more than 500 pieces; he is considered a master of short articles and brief essays, but he also presented large monographs. As is often the case with one-man coin collections, he was a numismatic generalist, but had a clear focal point on north-western Germany, on Westphalia in the Middle Ages and the early modern period. His work is to be appreciated in detail elsewhere; it is not easy to read, but he always provided new and often ground-breaking results thanks to his critical eye and a perfect mastery of numismatic methods. And he contributed to basic research with re-assignments of coin types, corpus works and coin find inventories. His activities as a state and regional historian for the Münsterland area right from the start of his career should also be mentioned, especially his work for the Coesfeld district, his home region.

For Dr Peter Ilisch, numismatics was the purpose of his life, he was a “lifer” – and his life’s work, which is already quite impressive and highly important, was not yet completed, far from it. His estate contains manuscripts for several large works, some of them more complete than others, in addition to material for at least a hundred other small pieces. A lot of knowledge is being buried here today! His death is an incredible loss for the scholarly world, but first and foremost, of course, for you, his family, his friends, his colleagues. And also for me as his successor, as he had a very, very, very lasting impact on my (scholarly) life over the past nine years.

Our relationship was certainly not the easiest and I wonder whether he would have been comfortable with my speaking here today. We had to deal with the typical predecessor-successor issue, which is rarely easy – but I, as his successor, have to continue the tradition and follow these big, enormous, too large footsteps – but I cannot do it alone! –, just as he continued the line of his predecessor, of course always adding our own touch to it. We always maintained close contact, but exclusively on a professional level: at events, through innumerable emails, during visits at “his” coin collection. And to the end, I relied on his knowledge, his inspiration and his criticism – and in this regard he could be quite unyielding, tenacious, unrelenting. Now I am alone, I cannot ask him anymore, I too will miss him dearly – like all of us.

May Peter Ilisch rest in peace; we will duly honour his memory.

Scholarly obituaries for Dr Peter Ilisch will be published in the Numismatisches Nachrichtenblatt (Stefan Kötz together with Gerd Dethlefs, Fritz Rudolf Künker and Stefan Wittenbrink), in the Geldgeschichtliche Nachrichten (Bernd Kluge and/or Christian Stoess), in the Jahrbuch für Numismatik und Geldgeschichte (Stefan Kötz) and certainly in several other numismatic magazines, including international publications.

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