A prized painting that was seized by the Nazis from a prominent Jewish family in Berlin, has been returned to its owners nearly nine decades later, the U.S. Department of Justice said.
“Winter,” features two young skaters, painted by American artist Gari Melchers in the late 19th century. The artwork was recently discovered at a small museum in upstate New York and returned earlier this month., after it was recovered by the FBI last year, the U. S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of New York said in a statement.
The painting, which had been missing for 87 years, was part of the prized art collection of Rudolf Mosse, a German publisher and philanthropist whose family operated a series of newspapers. When Mosse died in 1920, his daughter, Felicia Lachmann-Mosse, was his heir. She and her husband Hans Lachmann-Mosse ran the newspaper, The Berliner Tageblatt. The paper was an outspoken critic of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party’s rise to power.
The Mosse family become targets of the Nazi regime and became a symbol of the “hated Jewish Press,” People Magazine reported.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, the couple was persecuted and fled Germany 1933. The Nazis seized the family assets, including the artwork. “Winter” was part of a cache of more than 1,000 pieces of art and artifacts seized from the Mosse family, the Department of Justice said.
The painting that had been purchased in 1900 by Rudolf Mosse, a treasured piece of art that was displayed in their grand residence filled with fine art. For the past decade, heirs have been tenacious in their efforts to recover the lost pieces of art and this recovery was a victory.
“The Mosse family lost nearly everything because they were Jews. But they did not lose hope and neither did the Department of Justice, the FBI's program dedicated to finding stolen art and cultural property and “Winter,” is one of the latest examples of the FBI’s success,” acting U.S Attorney for the Northern District of New York Antoinette Bacon said at a repatriation ceremony at the Albany FBI office on Oct. 15.
The Mosse Art Restitution Project was started in 2011 to locate and restitute the stolen artworks on behalf of the Mosse heirs.
Currently, they have completed three dozen restitutions covering more than 50 items from public and private museums as well as private individuals in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Israel, and the United States, the Associated Press reported.
“Winter,” was allegedly discovered when the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, New York, posted the painting on their Facebook page along with a note of the museum’s seasonal closing in January 2017, with a message to its clients to “Enjoy Winter!”
The post was noticed by a student working with Dr. Meike Hoffmann of the Free University of Berlin. He is also head of the Mosse Art Research Initiative (MARI), a university-based collaboration involving Mosse heirs and German public cultural institutions, according to the news outlet.
“Winter,” sometimes known as “Skaters,” or “Snow” was linked to the Mosse family with the help of Arkell Museum director, Suzan Friedlander along with a team of researchers at MARI.
The DOJ said in their statement that “Winter” had changed hands many times after it was stolen by the Nazis. In May 1934, the painting was sold to an unknown buyer and then surfaced at a Manhattan gallery. Bartlett Arkell, a wealthy collector and president of the Beech-Nut Packing Co., purchased the artwork and sent it to upstate New York, where it became part of the collection of the museum, near the Mohawk River, that bears his name.
Acting U.S. Attorney, Bacon said that there is no evidence Arkell was aware of the painting’s dark history, in a statement.
Friedlander wrote in an email to Inside Edition Digital that the Arkell Museum was very upset to learn the history of the painting's seizure from the Mosse family by the Nazi's in 1933 and its subsequent sale at the Lepke Auction in 1934.
"We fully support the work of the Mosse Art Research Initiative and other efforts, and willingly turned over the painting to the FBI, waiving all right, title, and interest in the painting," said Friedlander, who said she was honored to be a part of the process. "The Arkell Museum has been part of making something right, at long last; we take that responsiblity very seriously and to heart."
Mosse Art Restitution Project manager J. Eric Bartko worked with federal authorities to retrieve the painting from the museum when it was first recovered by the FBI in Sept. 2019. The formal handover to the family was delayed by the pandemic, reported People Magazine.
Roger Strauch, president of the Mosse Foundation and the step-great-grandson of Rudolf Mosse, participated in the ceremony by video link. “It was one of the first large expropriations undertaken by the Nazis, a template for what became, unfortunately, a well-oiled machine,” he said.
Strauch told The AP that the painting is expected to be auctioned through Sotheby’s, where it could attract bids in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Most recovered artworks have been sold back to the previous holders or sold at auction, he said. Currently they have eight ongoing restitution claims pending in Poland, Sweden, Germany, Israel, and the United States.
According to the FBI, there are still countless works of art taken by Nazis that have not been recovered, and the agency urges anyone with information to contact the FBI’s art crime team at NYArtCrime@fbi.gov.
Before the ceremony concluded, the acting U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of New York, offered words of solace.
“We can never erase the horrors of Nazi Germany from history, but we can, and should, take every opportunity to deliver any justice we can including the return of property to rightful heirs,” she said. “While this certainly does not take away the pain that the Mosses endured, I hope it provides the family with some measure of justice.”