Mummy portraits stolen by Nazis, recovered, sell for over $300,000
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Mummy portraits stolen by Nazis, recovered, sell for over $300,000

Swiss university bought the two paintings from widow of 'All Quiet on the Western Front' author, recently returned them to heirs of German Jew

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

An Antonine-era mummy portrait of a young woman from the University of Zurich restituted to the heirs of a German Jewish publisher in April 2016. (Frank Tomio/University of Zurich)
An Antonine-era mummy portrait of a young woman from the University of Zurich restituted to the heirs of a German Jewish publisher in April 2016. (Frank Tomio/University of Zurich)

Two ancient mummy portraits that were returned to the heirs of a German Jew earlier this year, decades after they were stolen by the Nazis, sold at a Christie’s auction in New York on Tuesday for a combined $312,500.

The artifacts, Roman-era paintings of a young man and a young woman dating to the first and second centuries CE, were confiscated from a German Jew by the Nazis, acquired by Erich Maria Remarque, author of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and bought by the University of Zurich in 1979.

The mummy portrait of a woman, painted on wood, sold for $187,500, while the second painting of a bearded man sold for $125,000. The identities of the buyers were not public.

In May of this year, they were restituted to the heirs of German Jewish publisher Rudolf Mosse. 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.

The University of Zurich bought the two paintings from the German writer’s widow 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.”

A Flavian-era mummy portrait of a young man from the University of Zurich restituted to the heirs of a German Jewish publisher in April 2016. (Frank Tomio; University of Zurich)
A Flavian-era mummy portrait of a young man from the University of Zurich restituted to the heirs of a German Jewish publisher in April 2016. (Frank Tomio/University of Zurich)

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.

An Antonine-era mummy portrait of a young woman from the University of Zurich restituted to the heirs of a German Jewish publisher in April 2016. (Frank Tomio/University of Zurich)
An Antonine-era mummy portrait of a young woman from the University of Zurich restituted to the heirs of a German Jewish publisher in April 2016. (Frank Tomio/University of Zurich)

 

Rudolf Mosse (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
Rudolf Mosse (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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.

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