Kandinsky masterpiece once seized by Nazis breaks record in London sale

A painting by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky that was stolen by the Nazis, who then killed its owner at Auschwitz, has sold for a record £37.2m at auction in London.

wassily kandinsky sotheby's london

A painting by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky that was stolen by the Nazis, who then killed its owner at Auschwitz, has sold for a record £37.2m at auction in London.

It was sold on behalf of the great-grandchildren of the original owners, Johanna Margarethe Stern-Lippmann and Siegbert Stern. Titled Murnau mit Kirche II, translating to ‘Murnau with Church II’, it dates to 1910 and was only recently reunited with the family after being discovered in the Van Abbemuseum museum in Eindhoven nearly ten years ago.

Murnau mit Kirche II depicts a Bavarian village called Murnau in a burst of colour. The work is said to have signified Kandinsky’s move towards abstract art.

Stern-Lippmann and Stern were founders of a textile company and keen art collectors. The Kandinsky’s masterpiece was in the couple’s dining room in their villa in Potsdam, Berlin, before being seized. Their great-grandchildren said they would use some of the proceeds from the sale to try and track down more of the original collection that was taken by the Nazis in the 1930s.

“Though nothing can undo the wrongs of the past, nor the impact on our family and those who were in hiding – one of whom is still alive – the restitution of this painting that meant so much to our great-grandparents is immensely significant to us, because it is an acknowledgement and partially closes a wound that has remained open over the generations,” the Stern family said.

For now, the identity of the £37.2m buyer is unknown. The sale – which took place at Sotheby’s – breaks the record for a Kandinsky, surpassing the £33m that was paid for Painting with White Lines. Kandinsky completed that work in 1913, and it sold in 2017, again at Sotheby’s.

wassily kadinsky

Helena Newman, Sotheby’s European Chairman fields bids during the sale of Kandinsky’s Painting with White Lines, which finally sold for GBP 33 million after a ten minute bidding battle, at the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Sotheby’s on June 21, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s)

Stern-Lippmann and Stern were an influential couple at the time, friends with the likes of Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka, as well as Albert Einstein. 

Their art collection included more than 100 artworks, ranging from Dutch old master paintings, to work by Renoir, and modern artists at the time such as Munch and Kandinsky.

While Stern died of natural causes in 1935, soon after the Nazis took power in Germany, Stern-Lippmann had to flee the country Germany and was later murdered in Auschwitz. The location of many of their paintings is still unknown.

Murnau mit Kirche II had hung on the walls of Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven since 1951. It was returned to the Stern descendants last year, following a lengthy legal case.

Speaking about the sale, Sotheby’s vice-chairman and head of restitution, Lucian Simmons, said: “This year marks the 25th anniversary of the conference, held in Washington DC, that first established the ground rules for the restitution of art works looted by the Nazis during the second world war.

wassily kadinsky

Wassily Kandinsky’s ‘Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II)’ (estimated in the region of £37 million), one of the most important works by the artist ever to appear at auction, goes on view as part of an exhibition of modern and contemporary artworks at Sotheby’s on February 22, 2023 in London, England. The Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction takes place at Sotheby’s in London on 1 March 2023. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images for Sotheby’s)

“Since then, Sotheby’s restitution department has worked with many heirs and families to reunite them with their stolen property, but the restitution, after so many years, of Kandinsky’s Murnau mit Kirche II to the heirs of Johanna Margarete and Siegbert Stern has been especially resonant and moving, and we are so very glad that the full story will now be told.”

Helena Newman, the chair of Sotheby’s Europe, said: “Kandinsky’s Murnau period came to define abstract art for future generations, and the appearance of such an important painting – one of the last of this period and scale remaining in private hands – is a major moment for the market and for collectors.

“Its restitution after so many years allows us finally to reconnect this remarkable painting with its history, and rediscover the place of the Sterns and their collection in the glittering cultural milieu of 1920s Berlin.”

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