A watercolor by Vincent Van Gogh with a twisted provenance that includes two Jewish families and Nazi art collectors sold for $35.8 million at auction Thursday, a record for the artist’s work on paper.
“Meules de blé” is one of the first in a series of harvest paintings Van Gogh made in June 1888 while living in Arles in southern France, where he intended to start an artists colony with friend and fellow Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin.
In 1913, the painting was purchased by Max Meirowsky, a Jewish-German industrialist with a vast art collection — he sold the painting to fund his family’s escape from Germany in 1938 as persecution of Jews began to escalate.
By the time the Nazis invaded Paris in 1940, the painting was in the collection of Alexandrine de Rothschild, a member of the French branch of the wealthy Jewish banking family.
Rothchild’s art trove was confiscated by Nazis after she escaped to Switzerland, and while she recovered parts of her missing collection after the war, “Meules de blé” remained missing for decades until 1978, when the painting came up for sale at Wildenstein & Co and was purchased by the late Texas oil tycoon Edwin L. Cox, who had a taste for Impressionist paintings.
Cox hung “Meules de blé” in the drawing room of his mansion in Dallas, and his ownership of the painting remained a secret to everyone except close friends and family until his death last year, according to The Art Newspaper.
The auction house helped facilitate a settlement between the heirs of Cox, Meirowsky and Rothschild, allowing the painting to be sold, Christie’s said.
The painting’s ownership history illustrates how complicated art restitution can be. Christie’s staff noted that the art world is paying renewed attention to not just outright Nazi seizures, but also sales made by Jewish families under duress or who may have been pressured. Museums and private collectors are increasingly examining the provenance of their collections, especially artifacts taken from their countries of origin to Europe during the colonial era.
“Meules de blé” shattered auction estimates, which pegged the painting to sell for between $20 million and $30 million. Before the watercolor was displayed at Christie’s London and New York showrooms, the painting had not been seen in public in more than 100 years since it was featured in a massive Van Gogh retrospective at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, according to Christie’s. Six months after Van Gogh painted the haystacks in “Meules de blé,” his plans to launch an artists colony fell through. After an argument with Gauguin in December 1888, Van Gogh suffered a nervous breakdown during which he famously sliced off his own ear to give to a local woman in Arles. The previously most expensive Van Gogh painting on paper was “La Moisson En Provence,” which sold for nearly $15 million in 1997.
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