PICS: German museums restore vast art collection stolen by Nazis

This Dutch Old Master painting was looted by the Nazis in the dying days of World War II. (Photo: AP/ Peter Dejong)
This Dutch Old Master painting was looted by the Nazis in the dying days of World War II. (Photo: AP/ Peter Dejong)

Several German cultural institutions and the American heirs of a German-Jewish family presented the first results of their joint efforts to restitute a vast art collection stolen by the Nazis.

Berlin's state museums found in their collections nine artworks the Nazis took from the family of Berlin newspaper publisher Rudolf Mosse, and returned them to Mosse's heirs. The museums have since bought three of the pieces, including the marble sculpture "Susanna" by artist Reinhold Begas.

The other two works sold to the state museums are a Roman child sarcophagus and a sculpture of a reclining lioness by August Gaul.

Over 1 000 pieces of art to be returned

Other German museums and research institutions are involved in the huge effort to identify and return over 1 000 pieces of art that are believed to have been stolen from Mosse's family, a project called the Mosse Art Research Initiative.

"So far, we have begun research on 115 works, and have uncovered reliable information on 68 of them," project coordinator Meike Hoffmann says.

The marble sculpture Susanna by the artist Reinhold Begas, once belonged to Jewish-German newspaper publisher Rudolf Mosse, is displayed at the 'Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The sculpture is one of nine works which restituted from the collections and now are parts of Berlin's state museums. (Photo: AP/ Markus Schreiber)

A representative of Mosse's heirs, Roger Strauch, told reporters in Berlin that the joint project was unique because of the cooperation of all the institutions involved.

"The project does not aim to cast blame," Strauch says. "Rather, we are committed to returning property to their rightful heirs, as well as being sensitive to the inevitable awkwardness involved in this process."

SEE: Two newly confirmed van Gogh drawings on show in Netherlands

In other restitution cases, claims by heirs to property taken from or sold by relatives under duress during World War II sometimes have led to conflicts.

The current owners — usually museums or private collectors — have resisted returning valuable items if they don't think the proof of a family's prior ownership or Nazi involvement is strong enough to hand over the disputed pieces.

Ninety-seven-year-old Charlotte Bischoff van Heemskerck (left) and her daughter Rudolphine pose next to the painting "The Oyster Meal" by Jacob Ochtervelt (1634-1682) at Sotheby's in Amsterdam. The Dutch Old Master painting, belonging to Charlotte's father, was looted by the Nazis in the dying days of World War II and is being put up for auction after it was discovered hanging in the official residence of the Lord Mayor of the City of London and returned late last year to its rightful owners. (Photo: AP/ Peter Dejong)

The restitution project

Born in 1843, Mosse was part of the Jewish community that enjoyed success in Germany before the rise of the Nazis. He was the publisher of the liberal daily Berliner Tageblatt and several other newspapers, and also owned about 130 trade magazines.

Mosse's adopted daughter Felicia inherited a collection comprising thousands of paintings, sculptures, books, antiquities and furniture when her father died in 1920. Mosse's favorite artists included Max Liebermann, Oswald Achenbach, Franz Lenbach and Adolph Menzel.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the family was forced to flee and their property was confiscated.

ALSO SEE: PICS: Terror-inducing US lynching memorial inspired by SA's apartheid museum

Berlin's Free University, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, the German Lost Art Foundation and several art museums are contributing to the restitution project by sharing research expertise.

Project coordinator Hoffman says the results will be published on an online portal of the Free University.

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