Decades-long hunt for bronze sculpture looted by Nazis leads to posh German hotel

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Decades-long hunt for bronze sculpture looted by Nazis leads to posh German hotel
With fingers intertwined and mouths gleefully thrown open, the three maidens dance around the Art Nouveau sculpture by Walter Schott. Photo: Berthold Steinhilber.

by Matthew Shaer

WASHINGTON, DC.- In the final months of the 19th century, a German sculptor named Walter Schott began drawing up plans for a massive work he hoped would represent the pinnacle of his 15-year career. Cast in bronze, the Art Nouveau sculpture would feature three young women prancing around the lip of a stone fountain, fingers intertwined and mouths gleefully thrown open. Drei tanzende Mädchen, he would call it. Three Dancing Maidens.

Schott recruited a few local girls from his Berlin neighborhood, and asked them to dance around a peony bush. The resulting sketches, Schott later wrote in his memoirs, awakened in him an “enthusiasm I could no longer free myself from.” Still, the work came slowly. “To represent three very mobile figures atop a round, narrow disc, so that they make an impression when seen from all sides, has got to be one of the most difficult undertakings,” Schott recalled. He made a model at three-quarters scale, then another, then 35 more.

In early 1901, with his masterwork still in progress, Schott attended a gathering at a famous Berlin art salon. There, he struck up a conversation with a bell-shaped man in a fine black suit. Whether Schott had met Rudolf Mosse previously is unclear, but the artist would have known him by reputation. Born to a Jewish family in rural Posen province, in what is today Poland, Mosse had come to Berlin in the 1860s to work in publishing. By 24, he had his own advertising firm. Now 58, with thinning gray hair and a delta of crinkles between his arced brows, he was one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Germany—the head of a vast business empire that included some 130 newspapers, chief among them the Berliner Tageblatt, the daily of choice for Berlin’s intelligentsia.

Mosse had never been inclined to sit on his money, preferring instead, with his wife, to embark on philanthropic endeavors—one was the Rudolf and Emilie Mosse Foundation, a charity for poor children—and invest in a vast trove of rare books as well as artworks, which he hung, gallery style, in an opulent palace on Leipziger Platz: Egyptian antiquities, Benin Bronzes, paintings by giants such as the German Realist Adolph von Menzel and the Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. Writing almost a century later, Rudolf’s grandson George would remember that Rudolf, a self-made Jew in a land of Gentiles, found validation in his world-class art collection: It was “a sign of [the family’s] integration into European history and tradition.” On weekends, left-leaning politicians and writers gathered in the banquet hall of the Mosse Palais to drink and debate under a mural by the famed German historical painter Anton von Werner; now and then, Mosse would throw open the manor doors, allowing the public to wander the halls.

But Mosse felt something was missing from the residence, and turning to Schott, he said that he happened to be in the market for a fountain for the courtyard of his Berlin home. Might Schott have any suggestions? No record exists of Schott’s reply, but a letter, sent to Mosse a few days later, has survived. “Your idea has inspired me so much,” Schott wrote, adding that he did indeed have a design that might appeal to Mosse. “If it interests you,” Schott went on, he would be pleased to have Mosse pay him a visit at his studio, “without any liability for you.”

Eight years later—an agonizing period for Schott, a perfectionist who was determined that his sculpture should be impeccable—the finished piece was hauled by a team of workers to the Palais and connected to a freshwater well under the courtyard floor. With his sculpture occupying some of the best real estate in the city, Schott’s reputation soared; in short order, he won the gold medal at the 1910 world’s fair, in Brussels. He was forever grateful. “How faithfully in my heart I preserve the memory of my generous, art-loving patron Rudolf Mosse, my good friend,” he enthused in his memoirs.

But his benefactor had a limited time to enjoy his purchase. In 1914, World War I threw the city into chaos, and in 1920, Mosse died, of natural causes, at the age of 77. His businesses passed into the hands of his daughter, Felicia Mosse, and her husband, Hans Lachmann-Mosse, who attempted to steer the Mosse empire through the spasms of the postwar economic collapse.

With the rise of the Nazi Party in the 1930s came more urgent dangers. To the Nazis, a media empire run by liberal Jews was a grave offense and a threat, and the Reich frequently singled out the Mosse family as a public menace. In March of 1933, Berliner Tageblatt was blocked from publishing for several days “in the interests of public safety and order,” a Nazi official declared, and the paper’s editor, Theodor Wolff, a vociferous critic of Joseph Goebbels, was forced into exile. (The paper was eventually shut down entirely.)

That same month, Hans Lachmann-Mosse was visited by Wilhelm Ohst, a Nazi officer. With a revolver reportedly placed on the desk between them, Ohst explained that effective immediately the entirety of the Mosse family’s assets would be signed over to a fund benefiting veterans of the First World War. The foundation was a sham, but implicit in Ohst’s “offer” was survival for Lachmann-Mosse and his wife and children, who would be allowed to leave Germany alive.

The next year, the Nazis hired a pair of Berlin auction houses to dispose of the Mosse art collection, and in 1936 the Palais was rebranded as the headquarters of the Academy for German Law, a kind of Nazi think tank run by the vicious anti-Semite Hans Frank, later the governor of Nazi-occupied Poland. (Frank, who oversaw the murder of hundreds of thousands of Polish civilians and millions of Polish Jews, was executed in 1946 by the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg.)

One of the last surviving photographs of the old Mosse Palais was taken in 1940, during an architectural survey carried out by the Reich. In the picture, Schott’s sculpture has been replaced by a stone lion, also from the Mosse collection, presumably because the lion was viewed by Nazi officials as a more fitting mascot for the Academy.

Five years later, the Red Army cascaded through the gates of Berlin, raising a Soviet flag over the Reichs-tag, and reducing the nearby former residence of Rudolf Mosse to rubble. The lion was recovered, bruised but intact.

The fountain was gone.

This article first appeared in the June issue of Smithsonian Magazine.

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