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Hanns Scharff; Creator of L.A., State Capitol Mosaics

September 12, 1992|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hanns Scharff, a mosaic artist who came to the United States through contacts he made as a German interrogator of American pilots during World War II, has died. He was 84.

Scharff, who created the fountain mosaics for the Los Angeles Civic Center mall and the floor of the state Capitol in Sacramento, died Thursday at his home in Bear Valley Springs near Tehachapi, his friend and biographer Raymond F. Toliver said Friday.

The Prussian-born artist was the subject of Toliver's 1978 biography, "The Interrogator."

Working as a representative of Adler Motorwerke in Johannesburg, South Africa, Scharff was vacationing in Germany when World War II began and immediately was drafted into the German army. Because of his facile command of English he was assigned to the Luftwaffe to question U.S. pilots captured by the Germans.

Many years later, Scharff met and regularly reminisced with several of the American pilots he had questioned, including Toliver, who retired as a U.S. Air Force colonel. Scharff never tortured them, threatened them or acted in any way other than as a gentleman, Toliver and the others said.

Scharff himself became a prisoner of war on April 16, 1945, as U.S. troops advanced into Germany. He was released two months later when Germany surrendered.

The would-be artist first came to America in 1948 as a guest of the government to testify in the trial of a U.S. pilot who had stolen a plane and taken it to Germany. He later worked with the U.S. Air Force, helping develop survival techniques for captured pilots.

Scharff established himself as a commercially successful artist in 1955 when Neiman Marcus department stores permitted him to display his mosaic work. He moved to Los Angeles and set up a studio in the Hollywood Hills in 1956.

Using bits of glass, marble and stone, Scharff practiced the mosaic art made popular in Mesopotamia 7,000 years ago. But despite his creation of mosaic works ranging from massive murals to small tables, he refused to call himself an artist. "I am a copyist, not a creative artist," he once told The Times. "That is my art. To copy. Not to create anything."

Scharff's other projects included mosaic designs in Orlando, Fla., inside Cinderella's castle at Disney World and the Land Pavilion at Disney's Epcot Center. Perhaps his favorite work was an innovative mural with raised surfaces for Los Angeles' Braille Institute.

Scharff is survived by his wife, the former Baroness Sabine von Danckelman, four sons and a daughter.

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