How a Canajoharie Museum Unknowingly Acquired a Painting Stolen by Nazis

"Winter" by Gari Melchers courtesy of Gari Melchers Home and Studio

In 1900, Rudolph Mosse purchased the painting, "Winter" by Gari Melchers at the Great Berlin Art Exhibition. Mosse was a prominent publisher and philanthropist in Germany building an empire that made his family one of the wealthiest in Berlin.

When Rudolph died in 1920, his sole heir was his daughter Felicia Lachmann-Mosse and her husband Hans Lachmann-Mosse became the publisher of the company's flagship newspaper, the Berliner Tageblatt. The newspaper was an outspoken critic of the Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler, which made the Lachmann-Mosse family a symbol of the "Jewish press." In 1933, three months after Hitler's rise to power, Hans-Lachmann Mosse and many of the company's leading Jewish staff members were forced to flee the country. The Nazi regime took control of the family property, including the Rudolph Mosse Company, the Berliner Tageblatt, and Rudolph and Hans' substantial art collection.

In 1934, the painting “Winter” was purchased by the MacBeth Gallery in New York City and was later purchased by Bartlett Arkell who was co-founder and president of the Beechnut Packing Co. formerly headquartered in Canajoharie. The painting eventually was displayed in the Arkell Museum in Canajoharie where it remained until it was discovered who the original owner of the painting was.

The Mosse Art Restitution Project is led by Roger Strauch, the step-great-grandson of Hans Lachmann Mosse. The Project works to locate the over 1,000 objects and pieces of art that were seized by the Nazis. 

Eric Bartko is the Mosse Art Restitution’s Project Manager, his job is to identify, locate, and restitute the Mosse Family Art Collection. At the end of 2017, a research program began based at the Free University in Germany to research Mosse art. In the early stages of their research, they came across an event hosted by the Arkell Museum on Facebook advertising the painting “Winter”. After contacting the museum it was determined the painting was a piece of Mosse’s collection.

“At that point, we understood that we were going to seek restitution. While we notified the museum that we believed they were in possession of stolen property we also undertook to seek the guidance of the Northern District of New York,” Bartko explained. 

The Project handed their research over to the FBI and the Department of Justice which led to Assistant District Attorney, Chris Moran handling the case.

“We had pretty compelling evidence that the Nazi party took “Winter” from its rightful owner, the Mosse Family, that it crossed international boundaries when it traveled from Germany and ultimately arrived in upstate New York at a small museum known as the Arkell museum,” Moran explained.

When the FBI made the museum aware of the information, they promptly handed the painting over to the authorities, and in October 2020 “Winter” was returned to its rightful owner.

Special Agent Chris McKeogh is a member of the FBI Art Crime Team based in New York City. He says with cases like Nazi-looted art it can be challenging because so much time has passed. 

“There are a lot of instances where Nazi-looted art can be hiding in plain sight. It can be hanging on a wall of a museum, it can be hanging in somebody’s house, and that owner could very likely not know about the history of the painting. It's passed through multiple hands, it's passed through multiple countries, and generations of family members, potentially.”

Additionally, McKeogh says after the war, there were parties that took extraordinary steps to obscure the history of the artwork. But despite the challenges, the FBI remains dedicated to reuniting art and artifacts with their owners.

“It’s amazing to think that 80 years have passed but in a lot of ways, we’re just getting started. There’s a lot more out there and a lot more work to do. The FBI never gives up on these cases. So that’s what we’re here to do, try to right a little bit of a wrong, see if we can reunite some of these paintings with the heirs of the victims.”

The painting was sold in December for over $100,000 to benefit the Mosse Art Restitution Project and the heirs of Rudolph Mosse. 

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