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A recently restituted painting from early in Wassily Kandinsky’s career is estimated to sell for around $45m when it goes to auction at Sotheby’s London in March, with the proceeds set to be distributed among the heirs of the painting’s former Jewish owner, who was murdered in the Holocaust.
Kandinsky completed Murnau mit Kirche II (1910), a scene of a Bavarian church, using the abstract style that would go on to define his career. The painting is expected to break Kandinsky’s auction record of $42m (including fees), set at another Sotheby’s sale in London in 2017 by his painting Bild mit weissen Linien (1913).
Shortly after Murnau mit Kirche II was completed, the painting was acquired by Johanna Margarete and Siegbert Samuel Stern, a German Jewish couple who founded a successful textile firm. The couple ran in a 1920s Berlin social circle that included Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka. Two years after Siegbert died of natural causes in 1935, Johana Margarete fled Germany to escape Nazi persecution, but was captured in the Netherlands and deported to Auschwitz, where she was killed in May 1944. Johana Margarete was one of nine immediate members of the Stern family who were killed in the Holocaust.
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Murnau mit Kirche II, along with the rest of Sterns’ vast art collection, was “dispersed” during the Second World War, according to Sotheby’s. The painting was restituted last year after a years-long legal battle between the Sterns’ descendents and the Dutch museum where the painting has hung since 1951. The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven acquired the painting from a dealer who collaborated with the Mühlmann Agency, which sold art seized in Germany-occupied Holland.
Proceeds from the painting’s sale will be split between 13 Stern descendents, according to Sotheby’s. The money will help fund further research into what happened to the rest of the family’s art collection, which included more than 100 artworks by artists including Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Edvard Munch.
Ahead of the 1 March auction, Murnau mit Kirche II will go on display at Sotheby’s galleries in Hong Kong (5-7 February), New York (11-15 February) and London (22 February-1 March).
In December, Polish officials said a Kandinsky painting that sold for €387,500 at a Berlin auction was the same work that had been stolen during a heist at the National Museum in Warsaw in 1984.