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F.B.I. Recovers Nazi-Looted Painting From New York Museum

The Arkell Museum had no inkling of the early 20th-century canvas’ dark past

The Nazis seized Winter, an early 20th-century painting by American artist Gari Melchers, in 1933. (U.S. Attorney's Office)
smithsonian.com

Soon after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, his Nazi propaganda machine singled out the Berliner Tageblatt, a liberal-leaning newspaper known for its criticism of the far-right party, as a symbol of the so-called “Jewish press.” That same year, the paper’s publisher, Hans Lachmann-Mosse, fled to Switzerland with his wife Felicia. The Nazis, in turn, quickly seized the family’s art collection—a trove including, among others, a painting titled Winter by American artist Gari Melchers.

Eighty-five years later, the Associated Press reports, authorities have finally found this looted work of art. As court documents obtained by the AP reveal, the early 20th-century scene has long been hidden in plain sight, albeit in an unexpected locale: namely, the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie, New York. The upstate museum, unaware of the painting’s provenance until contacted by agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, surrendered the work in mid-September.

As Suzan D. Friedlander, the museum’s executive director and chief curator, tells the AP, staffers were “of course very upset to learn the history of the painting’s seizure from the Mosse family by the Nazis in 1933.” Winter will remain stored in the F.B.I.’s Albany office until it can be returned to the family’s descendants.

According to the AP, businessman and philanthropist Rudolf Mosse—known for building a German media empire comprised of some 130 newspapers and journals—purchased the painting at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition in 1900. Following his death in 1920, Mosse’s daughter and sole heir, Felicia, inherited both the family business and her father’s extensive art collection. Her husband, Hans, meanwhile, became publisher of the Mosses’ flagship publication, the Berliner Tageblatt.

Per the Albany Times Union’s Brendan J. Lyons, the Nazis relied on collaborator and art dealer Rudolph Lepke to sell Winter and similarly looted paintings following their seizure from Jewish families. Lepke sold the painting to an unknown buyer in May 1934, and five months later, Bartlett Arkell, co-founder of the Beech-Nut Packing Company, purchased the work for his personal collection during a sale at Manhattan’s Macbeth Art Gallery.

“The Macbeth Gallery was a popular gallery where Mr. Arkell purchased a number of his paintings that he eventually donated to the Arkell Museum,” museum trustee Charles J. Tallent tells Lyons. “The painting was with the museum since 1934, until it was reclaimed by the Mosse family.”

Arkell, who was by all accounts unaware of Winter’s unsavory past, later donated the painting to the New York museum that bears his name.

As Kate Brown writes for artnet News, the Arkell Museum immediately waived its legal rights to the painting upon learning of the work’s Nazi ties. “We have been part of making something right, at long last, and take that responsibility very seriously, and to heart,” Friedlander, who says she’d like to be present when the painting is returned to the Mosses, tells Brown.

The looted work of art’s rediscovery is no fluke, but rather the product of a fruitful collaboration—fittingly dubbed the Mosse Art Research Initiative—between the family’s descendants and the Free University of Berlin. According to Colin Moynihan of the New York Times, five university researchers have combed through correspondence, auction catalogs and Nazi-era records to identify art once owned by Mosse and his heirs. Although the team suspects the Nazis took 4,000 items from the family, the project has only identified 1,000 by name to date. The Mosse heirs, meanwhile, have spent the last seven years working to recover their stolen art. In addition to Winter, they have successfully reclaimed a lion sculpture by August Gaul, an Egyptian sarcophagus dating to 200 A.D., and a drawing by artist Adolph Menzel.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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