Two ancient mummy portraits confiscated from a German Jew by the Nazis, acquired by the author of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and bought by as Swiss university in the 1970s were returned to the estate of the family last week.
The artifacts, Roman-era paintings of a young man and a young woman, were purchased as part a collection by the University of Zurich in 1979 from the widow of German writer Erich Maria Remarque for approximately $137,000.
Between the first and third centuries, when Egypt was part of the Roman Empire, realistic portraits of the deceased were incorporated into the traditional mummification of the dead.
“Since practically no panel paintings from the Greek world have been preserved,” the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York explained in its exhibition of mummy portraits in 2000, “the mummy portraits — conserved by Egypt’s arid climate — are the only examples of an art form that ancient literary sources place among the highest achievements of Greek culture.”
The university said in a statement last week that it restituted the two paintings, dating to the first and second centuries CE, to the heirs of German Jewish publisher Rudolf Mosse.
According to the university, Mosse’s heirs gave a financial contribution to the university in exchange for the two artifacts.
Mosse, a 19th century Jewish German publisher and philanthropist, amassed an extensive collection of artwork and artifacts before died in 1920. He left his estate to his daughter, Felicia Lachmann-Mosse, who fled Germany with her husband in 1933 with the rise of the Nazi Party, which stole the family’s art collection and sold over 400 items on auction in 1934.
How the paintings ended up in the possession of Remarque — who in 1928 wrote the World War I novel about German soldiers, All Quiet on the Western Front, which was later turned into an Oscar-winning movie — remains unclear.
The Mosse Art Restitution Project, which represents the Mosse’s heirs in the US, has attempted to reclaim the artwork and artifacts confiscated and sold off by two Berlin auction houses.
Catalogs from the auctions were “more or less precisely described,” allowing lawyers representing the project to help identify the artwork, attorney Jan Hegemann said in a phone conversation with The Times of Israel.
Hegemann said that while other items in the Mosse Collection will soon be sold at auction, “it’s not finally decided upon what will happen with them” and the mummy portraits won’t be among those on the block.
“Whether or not they will be on sale at a later stage or whether they will go to a museum is not decided upon yet,” he said.
Last year, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation returned eight artworks, including a Roman sarcophagus, to the Mosse Foundation after they were identified as belonging to the Mosse collection.