Revealed: Royal Benin head from Jewish art collection

Provenance research and an amicable agreement with the heirs shortly before the publication of the auction catalogue

Benin, Nigeria, Benin Kingdom, Rudolf Mosse, Berlin, Restitution
Royal commemorative head, Benin, 19th century

Until recently, the collection history of the Royal Benin head ended with the early 20th century. But further provenance research by Zemanek-Münster brought further information to light: The Benin head from the Bassenge estate is a work from the 19th century and was once part of the Rudolf Mosse art collection, which was forcibly auctioned in Berlin in 1943. Restitution negotiations and an amicable agreement with the heirs took place shortly before the publication of the auction catalogue.

Finally proof was provided: The royal Benin head from the Berlin Bassenge collection (Lot 252), which will be auctioned on the 10th of March in Wurzburg, can clearly be attributed to the Rudolf Mosse art collection (1843-1920), whose estate was forcibly auctioned off in 1934.

This is the conclusion was reached by the Zemanek-Münster auction house from Wurzburg after intensive provenance research in recent weeks and with the help of the photo database "Benin-Objekte in Europa", which was initiated in 2014 by Audrey Peraldi and Andreas Schlothauer and financed by the Research Centre for Material Culture GmbH, Berlin. Dr. David Zemanek additionally commissioned thermoluminescence analysis which substantiated the authenticity and age of this treasure of courtly art from Benin (Thermoluminescence Expertise No. 01 R090218, 11th of February 2018, Ralf Kotalla, Haigerloch, Germany, age 175 years +/- 20-35%).

Accordingly, this commemorative head with nine other Benin bronze relief panels and the commemorative head of an Oba belonged to the assets, which were auctioned off by the Nazis "Rudolf Mosse-Treuhandverwaltung" on the 29th and 30th of May 1934 by the Rudolph Lepke's auction house in Berlin.

Necessary procedural steps initiated by Zemanek-Münster, restitution negotiations and an amicable agreement with the heirs make it possible to auction this work on the 10th March in Wurzburg. It is a work of art belonging to the high culture of Benin and whose artistic mastery was already recognised by Felix von Luschan (1854 -1924), scientists, Benin researchers and explorers, who did not hesitate to compare it with objects from the Italian Renaissance. 


Rudolf Mosse Gerda Bassenge

Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920)
Photo: Leo Baeck Institute, New York City



Gerda Bassenge (1915-1995)
Berlin gallery owner and closest collegue for Gerd Rosen, one of the first gallerists in post-war Germany for African art. She acquired this work in 1966, which has remained family-owned until today.
Photo: Private Archive


Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920), Berlin
Hans Lachmann-Mosse, Berlin / Oakland, USA
Rudolph Lepke's Kunst-Auctions-Haus, Berlin, 29 May 1934, Kat.Nr.178
H. Benninghaus, Oberhausen, Germany
Galerie Bassenge, Berlin, 3 - 7 May 1966, lot 2248
Gerda Bassenge, Berlin
Family Collection Bassenge, Berlin

Thermoluminescence Expertise No. 01 R090218, 11 February 2018, Ralf Kotalla, Haigerloch, (175 Jahre +/- 20-35 %)


Born as the son of Jewish parents, Rudolf Mosse (1843-1920) built a newspaper empire with a good hand and sensitivity, one of whose economically successful publications the “Berliner Tagblatt” was part of.  As early as 1882 he was so wealthy that he had a city palace built in the centre of Berlin, at Leipziger Platz 15, which provided the ideal setting for the building of his representative art collection. His collection contained not only contemporary German paintings (Adolf Menzel, Lovis Corinth, Karl Spitzweg, Wilhelm Leibl, Arnold Böcklin) but also paintings of ancient masters, Egyptian antiquities and Benin bronzes. In addition to the commemorative head of a queen mother "uhunmwun eloo" offered here, nine bronze relief plates and the commemorative head of an oba are documented.

R. Mosse was one of the first art collectors who, together with the art critic Fritz Stahl (1864-1928), at least on occasion used a consultant for his purchases. Felix von Luschan and Hans Meyer Mosse were well known to him. If Stahl was the consultant for paintings, he could have helped him buy African art objects. Luschan (1854-1924) was director of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin from 1905 to 1910. Hans Meyer (1858-1929) put together a significant collection of 53 Benin objects, which went to the Ethnological Museum in Leipzig between 1900 and 1919 and is now one of the largest treasures of the house.

With the start of the First World War R. Mosse seems to have completed his collecting activity. He died on 8 September 1920. His son-in-law, Hans Lachmann-Mosse, who took over the leadership of the Mosse group after his death, was more interested in music and architecture in the artistic field. He seems to have added no new pieces to the collection; however, he held the collection of his father-in-law in high esteem. Already during the hyperinflation of 1922/23 a part of the company assets were lost.

From 1926 the publishing house got into serious financial difficulties and had to declare bankruptcy in the autumn of 1932. Shortly after the seizure of power by Hitler on January 30, 1933, the National Socialists destroyed the ailing company empire. Hans Lachmann-Mosse had to emigrate to France in April 1933 and watch from there, as the "Rudolf Mosse-Treuhandverwaltung" set up by the National Socialists for his father-in-law's art collection be auctioned off on 29 and 30 May 1934 at the Rudolph Lepke's auction house in Berlin.




Katalog Lepke's Kunst-Auction-Haus, Cover Katalog, Lepke's Kunst-Auction-Haus, Titel

Benin head with panel from Lepke's catalogue
Ex: Lepke's Kunst-Auctions-Haus, Berlin 1934 
(Photos: Kunstbibliothek Staatliche Museen zu Berlin)


Auction in Wurzburg:
Saturday, 10 March 2018 starting at 2 pm 

Preview in Wurzburg:
Wed 7 until Fri 9 March from 10 am until 7 pm 
Sat 10 March from 9 am until 2 pm 


Press review:
Kunst und Auktionen 03/2018