SAN FRANCISCO — As the Nazis rose to power, a Jewish newspaper publisher named Rudolf Mosse became a vocal critic of facism. Forced to flee soon after Hitler became chancellor in 1933, Mosse left behind a massive, priceless art collection. Nearly eight decades later, several German public institutions have announced an unprecedented plan to help fund efforts to restore Mosse’s looted art.
At a press conference this week in Berlin, the organizations announced the first alliance of its kind to identify and locate the stolen artwork. The group will assist the heirs of the stolen art who are collaborating with a privately funded investigation managed by a San Francisco law firm.
“It was necessary for all parties to generate a reserve of trust in the other participants through their actions,” says J. Eric Bartko, the director of investigations for Bartko Zankel Bunzel & Miller (BZBM), the firm representing the Mosse Foundation in its recovery efforts.
“German public institutions are publicly committing themselves to searching for looted art that belonged to the Mosse family collection,” says Bartko, who believes the project will become an important example of what can be accomplished through collaborative means.
“This level of cooperation did not occur overnight,” he says. “The project was never about recrimination, but about locating and making restitution for the art.”
‘The project was never about recrimination, but about locating and making restitution for the art’
The Mosse Art Research Initiative (MARI) represents an exercise in the act of reconciliation. Bartko says that what some might consider instinctively mistrustful partners have “decided to the recognize that they retain similar interests in art, society, philosophy and ethics, and in that process develop trust in one another, and agree to take on such a significant task together.”
MARI is a collaboration hosted by Berlin’s Freie Universistat (Free University) and funded by the German Lost Art Foundation and the Mosse Art Restitution Project. In addition to museums and institutions, other participants include the Kulturstiftung der Lander, the Stiftung PreuBischer Kulturbesitz, the Jewish Museum of Berlin Foundation, and the Landesarchiv. Recipients include the Mosse Foundation, the University of Wisconsin, and Joy Mosse, a private individual.
“Without adequate documentation, it is very difficult to make a case for restitution,” says Bartko, who is not ethnically or religiously Jewish but attended summer camp at Temple Beth El in Berkeley during his childhood. “There is a great deal of documentation in regard to German-Jewish families that continues to exist in German archives and is often unknown to families’ descendants.”
Felicia Lachmann-Mosse was the sole heir of Rudolf Mosse, the original collector of the Mosse Art Collection. Felicia parented three children with her husband Hans Lachmann-Mosse, and both contributed additional art works to the collection. Their three children were George L. Mosse, Hilda L. Mosse, and another Rudolf Mosse.
“George became a renowned historian at the University of Wisconsin after being forced to flee Germany by the National Socialist regime, and he designated the university his heir,” Bartko says. “Hilde L. Mosse was a noted child psychiatrist in Harlem after [also] being forced to flee. She established the Mosse Foundation as her heir. The Rudolf of this generation passed away in the United States not long after [coming here], and his heir… is his child.”
The Mosse Art Restitution Project represents a historic breakthrough in the decades-long effort to identify and locate artwork looted by the Nazi regime under Adolf Hitler. The joint public/private project is the first of its kind in the history of the restitution movement, and an advance in Germany’s handling of looted art. Never before have Germans institutions willingly joined provenance searches, let alone fund one.
“Up until now, establishing provenance for identified artworks was often complicated and difficult,” Bartko says. “With the full resources and cooperation of German institutions, the provenance investigation will enter a historic phase.”
Researchers at Freie Universistat will search German archives for the thousands of paintings, sculptures, arts and crafts, books and antiquities Mosse once owned. His collection presumably is scattered throughout museums and private collections around the world.
Three items are slated to go on auction with the Villa Grisebach auction house in June: an Adolph Menzel pastel and two oil paintings — one from Ludwig von Hofmann and another from Wilhelm Leibl.
BZBM’s international investigation for “Mosse art,” which began in 2012, has already located and achieved multiple restitutions of important pieces in Germany and Switzerland, including one by Adolph Menzel and another by Max Liebermann.
“MARP has been able to identify and list as looted over 1,000 artworks,” Bartko says. “MARI has stated that there are over 4,000 to be recovered. No one has any idea how many will be found.”
But, Bartko says, the project’s members are now committed to the success of identifying and locating the remainder of Mosse’s collection.
“In the course of the BZBM investigation, solid documentation of the initial looting by the National Socialists was uncovered, as well as evidence that key items in the collection had been ‘plucked’ by intimates of the National Socialists between the initial looting and later auction of the art, books and antiquities,” Bartko says.
“The search for and restitution of Mosse art will enter a new stage with the collaboration with German public institutions under the Mosse Art Research Initiative,” Bartko says. In fact, he says, every museum the project contacted that possessed looted art from the Mosse collection promptly acknowledged provenance and agreed “that the only proper thing to do was to restitute the item.”
“However, while all agreed to restitution in a timely fashion, there has been a marked difference in how long each museum took to actually execute that restitution,” he says.
A leader of the Nazi-reviled ‘Jewish press’
A philanthropist and influential publisher during the Weimar Republic, Mosse (1843-1920) was an ardent critic of the rise of Hilter’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Mosse published a number of newspapers, and his Berliner Tageblatt was particularly critical of Hitler’s rise to power.
It is believed to be one of the earliest confiscations and forced auctions under the Third Reich
The Mosse family quickly became a symbol of the Nazi-reviled “Jewish press” and within months after Hitler assumed the role of chancellor, then-publisher Hans Lachmann-Mosse, Rudolf Mosse’s son-in-law, and his wife Erna, fled to France and later to the US.
In what is believed to be one of the earliest confiscations and forced auctions under the Third Reich, National Socialists confiscated the Mosse Art Collection. They also seized the family’s substantial real estate holdings and publishing house. An early art advisor to Hitler named Karl Haberstock organized two auctions of Mosse art and other family valuables in 1934.
BZBM’s investigative team includes former Deputy Chief Charles “Chuck” La Bella of the fraud section of the US Department of Justice; and principal attorneys Rob Bunzel, John J. Bartko and Martin Zankel. BZBM has not criticized Germany’s previous recovery efforts.
“Rather than offering acrimony and recrimination with German institutions, BZBM presented restitution as an opportunity for reconciliation and the fostering of stronger German-American and German-Jewish relations moving forward,” Bartko said.
As a result, the German Lost Art Foundation, or Deutsches Zentrum Kulturgutverluste, which is overseen by the German government, is funding and supporting the first-of-its-kind MARI partnership. Efforts were previously initiated to reinstate the artwork to the Mosse family.
The new joint project benefits from Germany’s voluntary signing of relevant legislation.
“All of the restitutions thus far have occurred on the basis of the Washington Principles on Nazi Looted Art of 1998,” Bartko says. “I have high hopes that the German Lost Art Foundation championed by the Minister of Culture, Monika Gruetters, will be able to help standardize and normalize the restitution process across jurisdictions… I believe that Frau Gruetters has made great progress in changing how Germany deals with restitutions, and is to be commended for her efforts.”
The international pact established legal protocols to identify Nazi-confiscated art and seek restitution for the rightful owners. Despite the pact’s non-binding nature, Germany has enacted local legislation binding public institutions to its principles.