RIHA Journal 0289 | 15 September 2023

The Patronage of Berlin’s Egyptian Museum by German-Jewish Press Tycoon Rudolf Mosse (1843–1920) and the Sequestration of His Art Collection during the “Third Reich”

Thomas L. Gertzen and Jana Helmbold-Doyé

The publishing tycoon Rudolf Mosse (1843–1920) donated over 700 objects to the Egyptian Museum in Berlin between 1892 and 1894, among them the Green Head from a royal statue of Amasis (ÄM 11864). Most had been acquired on the antiquities market by Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch (1827–1894) during his journey to Egypt in 1891–1892, which was financed by Mosse. Leaving aside postcolonial discourse regarding the appropriation of ancient Egyptian artifacts by European travelers and scholars, this case study highlights another important and long-neglected aspect of the early history of German Egyptology: patronage or private support provided by Jewish entrepreneurs. Only recently a wider public was reminded of the engagement of James Simon (1851–1932), the most significant sponsor of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft (German Oriental Society), whose gifts to the Egyptian Museum in Berlin included the painted bust of Queen Nefertiti. This article—which is based on the findings of a multi-author volume published jointly by the Moses Mendelssohn Center for European-Jewish Studies in Potsdam and the Egyptian Museum in Berlin—discusses the prehistory of the seizure and sale of Mosse’s private art collection in 1934, including Egyptian antiquities, and the attempted damnatio memoriae of him. The goal is to open a discussion with a broader, more complex approach, employing strategies of provenance research, to document the efforts and achievements of Jewish patrons of the arts and thus avoid their reduction to victims.


[1] In the summer of 2014, the heirs of Rudolf Mosse requested the restitution of two ancient Egyptian objects that had been acquired in 1970 by the Egyptian Museum in Berlin2, a request to which the State Museums of Berlin acceded. Obviously, provenance research for the restitution of works of art from museum collections to previous owners or their heirs is not limited to the period between 1933 and 1945. For instance, both the German Democratic Republic and the art market in the Federal Republic of Germany have respective issues in need of resolution. Similarly, the Mosse collection during the “Third Reich” has a prehistory and an aftermath3. This article focuses on the period prior to the Nazis’ assumption of power in Germany and on a different aspect of provenance research—namely, the role of German-Jewish entrepreneurs as benefactors of public art collections and archaeological museums.

Rudolf Mosse: the making of a press tycoon

[2] Rudolf Mosse, the sixth child of Markus Mosse, MD (1808–1865), and his wife, Ulrike (née Wolff; 1813–1888), was born 8 May 1843 in Grätz, in the district of Posen/Poznań, which at that time belonged to the Kingdom of Prussia (today: Voivodeship Greater Poland) (Figs. 1, 2)4. After graduating from the gymnasium in Lissa, he struggled to find a position in life. In 1860, after a short period learning the bookselling business in Posen/Poznań, he worked for a time in the linen and lingerie store of his elder brother Salomon (1837–1903); thereafter he experimented with several other occupations, even considering a career as an estate manager. In 1864 the Der Telegraph newspaper in Leipzig hired him. At the end of the year Mosse accepted an unsalaried position as an advertising agent for the journal Gartenlaube. In recognition of his success, the editor offered him a partnership. Mosse, however, declined the offer and instead went on to establish his own Zeitungs-Annoncen-Expedition Rudolf Mosse in Berlin in 1867. When the business blossomed, he opened various local branches in a number of German cities. Decisive for his success was the firm’s offer of a complete package of advertising and publishing services in its own newspapers, such as the Berliner Tageblatt und Handelszeitung (from 1872) and the Berliner Morgen-Zeitung (from 1889) (Fig. 3)5.

Fig. 1. Rudolf Mosse, ca. 1910 (photograph © Bildarchiv, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, bpk 10002695; photographer unknown)

Fig. 2. Rudolf Mosse (front right) and his brothers (from left to right) Albert, Salomon, Paul, Emil, Theodor, and Max, 9 April 1891, place unknown (photograph © Bildarchiv, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, bpk 10009402; photographer unknown)

Fig. 3. Postcard featuring the headquarters of Mosse’s Berliner Morgen-Zeitung, undated (photograph from the private collection of Thomas L. Gertzen)

[3] In 1872, Mosse purchased the daily Berliner Tageblatt and, in 1904, the newspaper Berliner Volks-Zeitung. He created a center for market research and an atelier for advertisement design. His enormous economic success and his many and varied engagements in the public interest earned Mosse numerous honors6. These included an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg in 1917. The following year, he was elected alderman of the Berlin merchant corporation. Although Kaiser Wilhelm II offered him a title of nobility, he declined, for he ranked himself among the Bürger. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, the Berlin district of Wilmersdorf named a street after him. (In 1958, it was expanded to Rudolf Mosse Square.) On 8 September 1920 Rudolf Mosse died of a heart attack while hunting.

[4] The economic decline of Germany in the aftermath of World War I resulted in considerable economic losses for Mosse’s business interests; in 1932 the company declared bankruptcy7. Immediately after the Nazis’ assumption of power, the business was seized and his family was forced to sell their assets before going into exile. The various companies and businesses were “Aryanized”. Many assets, including the art collection from Mosse’s private estate, were put up for auction in 1934.

Rudolf Mosse’s private collection of Egyptian antiquities

[5] Mosse had integrated his private art collection into his 20-room palace at Leipziger Platz 15 in Berlin. Since about 1910, he offered the public limited access to the Mosse Gallery (or: Mosseum, as it was called in art circles). The Egyptian objects were displayed along with other antiquities in a glass cabinet (Fig. 4)8. The contents of this collection can be reconstructed from the descriptions of art critic Adolph Donath, who took the reader on a guided tour through the Mosse Gallery in 1909. Furthermore, in recent years, objects that belonged to Rudolf Mosse or his heirs prior to 1934 have been identified in numerous collections9.

Fig. 4. Glass cabinet with Aegyptiaca and other antiquities in the private collection of Rudolf Mosse, Mosse-Palais at Leipziger Platz 15, Berlin (reprod. from: Haus der Sammlungen Rudolf Mosse, exh. cat., Berlin 1929 [reprint 1932], n.p. [17])

[6] After Mosse’s death in 1920, his art collection and estate were put under the control of the Rudolf Mosse – Treuhandverwaltung (trusteeship). In 1934, the latter commissioned Hans-Carl Krüger and Karl Haberstock with the sale of the entire collection, which was handled by Rudolph Lepkeʼs Kunst-Auctions-Haus. Paintings, furniture, and other objects were auctioned off after a customary viewing period of a few days on 29 and 30 May 1934 in the Mosse-Palais on Leipziger Platz10. Since his collection consisted mainly of contemporary German art and Old Masters paintings, the catalog listed only a few Egyptian antiquities, recorded in just 35 auction lot numbers11. Unintentionally, the National Socialists preserved Mosse’s legacy with this catalog. However, it contained only the high-quality and most valuable works in the collection. His larger collection of Egyptian antiquities can only be traced through marginal descriptions and the photograph of the glass cabinet (see Fig. 4), in addition to the Lepke auction catalog. Among the Egyptian objects were two mummy portraits, which were apparently valued highest in the auction in the group of Aegyptiaca12. Otherwise, the Egyptian items for sale and in the cabinet were mostly small-format objects, such as amulets, statuettes, and vessels of various shapes, and almost all exclusively date from the Late Period to the Roman Period (ca. 6th century BC to 3rd century AD). Only four objects belong to earlier periods, the Old Kingdom (ca. 2500–2350 BC) and the New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 BC)13. Some of the artifacts came from the excavations of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft at Abusir el-Meleq, which included a necklace from a tomb14. Since the earliest systematic excavations of Late Period burials in that area began in 1903, the necklace could not have entered the collection earlier15. In the same year, a relief fragment with a hieroglyphic inscription is said to have been found in the tomb of the official Sennefer, located in Saqqara16.

[7] Two of the objects recognizable in the photo of the glass cabinet (see Fig. 4) and thus proven to come from Mosse’s private collection, have been identified with objects in the Egyptian Museum in Berlinin recent years (Figs. 5a, 5b). The objects in question are an offering table made of limestone from the Old Kingdom, possibly fromSaïs, and a canopic jar without lid from the Late Period (ca. 664–525 BC), possibly from Saqqara. They were purchased in 1970 by Erich Getzlaff, MD (1889–1971), who lived in Borgsdorf near Berlin, for the price of 1,500 marks (GDR)17. It is not recorded under what circumstances and when exactly Getzlaff acquired them. Shortly after their acquisition, the artifacts were published in 1972 by Ingeborg Müller, who at that time was curator of the Egyptian Museum in East Berlin18. In the summer of 2014, the descendants of Rudolf Mosse submitted restitution claims to the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz, which were also consented to for the two objects, as their provenance can undoubtedly be traced back to Rudolf Mosse’s private collection. After the claim regarding the Egyptian artifacts had been agreed on, however, the objects initially remained in the Egyptian Museum’s depot at the request of the heirs until they were handed over in February 202119.

Fig. 5a. Egyptian offering table from the private collection of Rudolf Mosse, restituted to his heirs in 2014 (photograph: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung; photographer: Frank Marohn)

Fig. 5b. Egyptian canopic jar from the private collection of Rudolf Mosse, restituted to his heirs in 2014 (photograph: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung; photographer: Frank Marohn)

[8] From an Egyptological point of view, the collection might be considered an assemblage of antique souvenirs. The whereabouts of the other Aegyptiaca from the Mosse collection are not yet known. However, due to the comparatively low sums at which they were valued, it can be assumed that they were bought by different private individuals at the auction in 1934.

Jewish sponsorship of art: From Tzedakah to Bürgersinn

[9] Research into the history of Jewish20 patronage in Germany has progressed considerably in recent years, though there is a lack of comparative studies about non-Jewish patronage, and research has been concentrated on urban areas like Berlin, Hamburg, and Frankfurt21. According to Elisabeth Kraus, the various possible motivations Jewish entrepreneurs had for engaging in public patronage can be summarized as follows22:

  • A paternalistic attitude toward the working classes might ensure dependability and discourage engagement in socialist movements (which would also apply to non-Jewish patronage, of course).

  • Jewish benefactors might be particularly sensitized to the needs of the underprivileged, given their own precarious status in German society.

  • Social benevolence might function as an entrée to German society and was considered as a distinctive sign of belonging to German Bürgertum23.

  • Sponsorship might counteract anti-Semitic stereotypes, like the “avaricious Jew”.

  • Finally, there might be a religious incentive, following the concept of צְדָקָה (tzedakah, the obligation to charity).

[10] It is important to keep in mind that Jews, though (by law) enjoying equal status in Prussia since 1867 and later in all of Germany, never achieved actual equality in the society of the Kaiserreich. Nonetheless, since the time of Jewish enlightenment (השכלה, Haskalah), scholars like Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786) had sought emancipation—not to be confused with assimilation (i.e., adaptation to German culture byabandoning Judaism), which, however, was yet another option24—through education and social integration. In any case, the ideal for German Jewry was to become a part of German Bürgertum25.

[11] Given the enormous popularity of archaeological research in Germany at the turn of the 20th century and the establishment of various learned societies for the support of museums, it is no wonder that a number of Germany’s most wealthy Jewish entrepreneurs pursued patronage of excavations and museums26. In 1887/1888, the Orient-Comité was founded to compensate for the lack of funds available to the Berlin Museum of Egyptian and Near Eastern Antiquities to finance excavations and acquire objects for the collections. Among the most prominent benefactors were Jewish members James Simon (1851–1932, who later donated the bust of Nefertiti [ÄM 21300] to the museum)27, Max Steinthal (1850–1940), and Robert von Mendelssohn (1857–1917). In 1888, Isaak Simon (1816–1890) financed the acquisition of the so-called Amarna Letters for the Near Eastern Department28. His son, James, helped to secure the famous Green Head, a Late Period sculpture, for the Egyptian Department in 1893 (Fig. 6). This “casual” support was institutionalized through the foundation of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft in 1898 under the aegis of Emperor Wilhelm II (Fig. 7), but support was primarily provided by those Jewish entrepreneurs who had earlier funded the Berlin and other German museums.

Fig. 6. The so-called Berlin Green Head, Late Period (ca. 570–526 BC). Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, ÄM 12500 (photograph © Bildarchiv, Preußischer Kulturbesitz, bpk 0095730; photographer: Sandra Steiß)

Fig. 7. Commemorative medal of the Deutsche Orient-Gesellschaft on the silver wedding anniversary of Emperor Wilhelm II and his wife, Auguste Viktoria, 27 February 1906 (reprod. from: Westfälische Auktionsgesellschaft [WAG] für Münzen und Medaillen oHG, ed., WAG Auktion 52, no. 205)

Mosse and the Golden Age of Egyptology

[12] Sponsorship for Berlin’s Egyptian Museum29 became more institutionalized when Jean Pierre Adolphe Erman (1854–1937) served as director (1885–1914) (Fig. 8)30. Erman, himself of Jewish-Huguenot extraction31, was very well connected in Berlin society and clearly saw the necessity of popularizing Egyptological research with spectacular archaeological finds and significant acquisitions. As a formative figure of the so-called Berlin School of Egyptology, he inaugurated what has been termed the Golden Age of Egyptology and became one of the most influential scholars in the history of the discipline32.

Fig. 8. Jean Pierre Adolphe Erman (1854–1937), Egyptologist and director of the Ägyptisches Museum in Berlin 1885–1914, undated photograph (reprod. from: Adolf Erman, Mein Werden und mein Wirken. Erinnerungen eines alten Berliner Gelehrten, Leipzig 1929, frontispiece)

[13] Erman convinced numerous benefactors, named above, to donate or at least finance various acquisitions; he also enlisted Rudolf Mosse as one of the most active supporters of his museum. Being a conservative royalist himself, Erman conveniently ignored the respective political orientations of others when they might have been a hindrance:

I also encountered Rudolf Mosse in those days, and I can only say, that he appealed to me, notwithstanding our different political views. He was totally different from what people expected, an energetic personality, of whom one would readily believe that he originally intended to become a farmer. Only once I have experienced an aspect of his personality which I could not approve of, but even then, he acted so naively, that I was unable to bear a grudge: One day I was astonished to read an extremely negative article about the municipal administration in the Berliner Tageblatt. When I intended to ask him about it, he rushed at me, saying: “Well, what do you say? People say Mosse is almighty in the Red [town] Hall, but I achieved nothing.” The ensuing conversation revealed the cause for his rage; he had sought for a position in a local hospital for a young relative of his, but the city had employed somebody else. Now he punished the alderman by this article and found nothing wrong in that33.

There is evidence that Erman offered objects from the museum’s holdings in return to this major benefactor. On 14 October 1892, Erman asked Mosse in a letter to come to the museum to select objects to be transferred to his private collection34. A few months after Mosse made the selection, the custom-fitted cabinet (Fig. 4) was made in a carpenter’s shop at the museum’s expense.

Heinrich Brugsch and the Egyptian antiquities in Rudolf Mosse’s private collection

[14] Erman was not the only Egyptologist whom Mosse supported in his work. Another was Heinrich Brugsch (1827–1894), one of the most adventurous and genial figures in the history of the discipline35. At the beginning of the 1890s, Mosse financed an expedition enabling Brugsch to conduct excavations at Hawara and Arsinoë in the Fayûm Oasis and at Saïs in the Western Nile Delta. During his sojourn in Egypt, Brugsch established contact with antiquities traders36, which led to the subsequent acquisition of the Green Head mentioned above. In a way, Brugsch functioned as an agent both for the Egyptian Museum in Berlin and for Rudolf Mosse, his private financier: The artifacts from Egypt in Mosse’s collection are largely due to Brugsch’s enterprises and connections with the Egyptian Museum Berlin. Little attention has been paid to the fact that Rudolf Mosse was primarily a silent patron who contributed to a considerable extent to the growth of the Egyptian Museum’s collection as early as 1892. Thus, he must be honored here, not only as the donor of numerous objects but also as a sponsor of the Egyptologist Heinrich Brugsch. And the museum owes more than 700 objects to Brugsch’s venture in Egypt, which were generously donated by Mosse and thus recorded in various volumes of the museum’s inventory book as gifts between 1892 and 1894 (Figs. 9a, 9b)37.

Figs. 9a-b. Excerpts from the inventory book of the Egyptian Museum, Berlin (photographs: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung)

[15] Brugsch’s stay in Egypt in 1892, which lasted several weeks, was financed solely by Mosse, whose donation of 30,000 Reichsmark made possible not only excavations but also purchases38.The excavations at Hawara and Arsinoë under Brugsch’s direction took place from 10 to 20 March 1892 and at Saïs from 13 to 24 April 189239. The choice of archaeological sites in the Fayûm was not random; it was inspired by the Roman-era mummy masks and portraits that had been recorded at various sites a few years earlier. Thus, Theodor Graf (1840–1903), an Austrian carpet dealer, acquired numerous finds from Er-Rubayat, and W. M. Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) was able to document comparable artifacts at Hawara through excavations40. Accordingly, the Egyptian Museum was pleased that these excavations yielded archaeological objects for its collection41, though there are very few records by Brugsch about the finds42.

[16] The majority of the Egyptian archaeological objects in the Berlin museum that can be traced back to Brugsch are recorded with Hawara as their origin43. In the immediate vicinity of the Middle Kingdom pyramid of Amenemhat III (ca. 1800 BC) at Hawara lies a large necropolis of mud-brick tombs dating from the Ptolemaic and Roman periods (ca. 300 BC – AD 300) (Fig. 10). Several individuals, probably entire families, were buried inside them, most of them mummified and provided with splendid covers. Nevertheless, the statement that Brugsch allegedly excavated 600 mummies in Hawara has to be doubted44. It is unrealistic that he would have been able to find this large number of individuals with the support of 150 workers in just 10 days, while working in the Fayûm in two places at the same time, even if one takes into account that the excavations at the time were similar to a treasure hunt. Considering the few contemporary statements, one assumes that Brugsch exaggerated the importance of his mission by alleging such results.

Fig. 10. View from the pyramid of Amenemhat III to the later tomb complexes, Hawara (Fayûm), Egypt (photograph: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, ph. 1764 [1881/2])

In addition to the finds from the Fayûm in the Egyptian Museum in Berlin, which comprise 166 archaeological objects and thus almost 40 percent of the finds from this campaign, another 67 objects from other regions are recorded, among which are numerous acquisitions from merchants45. Furthermore, over 300 inscribed objects can currently be traced back to Brugsch’s excavations and acquisitions in Egypt in 189246. The Greek inscriptions represent the largest group, followed by Arabic-language inscriptions, as well as individual inscriptions in Demotic, Coptic, Ethiopian, Pehlevi, and bilingual texts. Among the documents, the largest percentage are of Fayûm origin. As in the case of the mummies, Brugsch’s statement that he allegedly brought 4,000 papyri with him is probably exaggerated47.

[17] The acquisition of numerous antiquities for Berlin’s Egyptian Museum also took place while the excavation was underway. The total value of the purchases made by Brugsch in Egypt between February and May 1892 is documented as 4,385.70 Reichsmark (Fig. 11)48. In fact, Brugsch seems to have devoted more time to the purchase negotiations than to the excavations, which lasted only twenty days. This can be concluded by the fact that he had already taken a first look at the antiquities at the dealers’ in Cairo and surroundings between 12 and 14 February 189249.

Fig. 11. Heinrich Brugsch, list of acquisitions made in Egypt between February and May 1892, detail. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv (hereafter: SMB-ZA), I-GV, 566 Anlage D, 4 (photograph: SMB-ZA)

[18] Among the objects recorded on Brugsch’s purchase list and later documented in Mosse’s private collection was, for example, a clay oil lamp with six wick channels and the enthroned god Serapis and a Greek inscription on top (Figs. 12a-c)50. Mosse generously left valuable and remarkable pieces to the museum and thus to scholarship, while the known parts of his private collection of Aegyptiaca are of more modest rank51.

Fig. 12a. Heinrich Brugsch, list of acquisitions made in Egypt between February and May 1892, detail: oil lamp with the god Serapis, Roman Period (2nd–3rd century AD), which came into the private collection of Rudolf Mosse, Berlin. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Zentralarchiv, I-GV, 566 Anlage D, 2 (photograph: SMB-ZA)

Figs. 12b-c. Oil lamp with the god Serapis, Roman Period (2nd–3rd century AD), from the private collection of Rudolf Mosse, Berlin: b) cabinet in the Mosse-Palais, Berlin, with lamp on shelf (reprod. from: Haus der Sammlungen Rudolf Mosse, Berlin 1929 [reprint 1932], n.p. [17]) │ c) as shown in the 1934 Lepke auction catalog, pl. 20 (no. 167)

[19] Among the hundreds of works of art donated by Rudolf Mosse to the Berlin Egyptian Museum are 40 artifacts that, according to the inventory book, Brugsch bought from two Bedouins named Ali and Farag52. In fact, the dealers in question were Ali Abd el-Haj and Farag Ismaïn, who lived in Kafr el-Haram (Giza). There is also evidence of other purchases of larger sets of items for the Berlin museum from these two sellers53. Both operated as the most important antiquities dealers in Egypt at that time and worked as partners until 1896, when they became competitors. Farag Ismaïn and Ali Abd el-Haj managed to obtain authorization to carry out excavations at various sites in the Fayûm and Middle Egypt; this was issued to them on the condition that they had to hand over part of the finds to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. The objects that are preserved today in Cairo and Berlin show clearly the exclusivity of the pieces that the “Bedouins Ali and Farag” traded; for example, one of the sets purchased for Berlin includes ten exquisitely painted mummy shrouds with different representations (Figs. 13a-b)54.

Figs. 13a-b. Roman period mummy shroud of a woman depicted in the costume of the living. Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, ÄM 11659 (photographs: SMB, Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung; photographer: Sandra Steiß)

Two draped statues of nameless high officials from Dimeh (Soknopaios Nesos) were also acquired from them, possibly from their excavations (Figs. 14a-b). In addition, Ali Abd el-Haj and Farag Ismaïn were involved in the trade of papyri; a whole bundle of over 300 Greek texts, which Brugsch bought for 1,000 pounds sterling for the then Königliche Museen, comes from them55.