Kandinsky painting with a tragic Holocaust past for sale at Sotheby's

Auctioneers expect restituted work to fetch $45m


A terrifying story of love and loss lies behind a Sotheby’s sale next month — a painting by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky, which the auction house says is the greatest of his works ever to come to market. It is expected to fetch in the region of $45 million.

Murnau mit Kirche II — the village of Murnau, in Bavaria, and its church — was painted by Kandinsky in 1910, and is said to have set the next generation of abstract artists on a new path. Kandinsky and his lover and fellow artist Gabriele Munter first discovered the spot in 1908 and fell in love with the place, buying a house there the following year and setting up a hub of artists, who similarly enjoyed the rich views and local subject matter.

Since 1951 the painting has been on display in the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands. But after its provenance was identified 10 years ago, it was returned to the heirs of a Jewish family, its original owners.

Johanna Stern and her husband Siegbert were the glamorous owners of a textile business, Graumann and Stern, in 1920s Berlin. They had a glittering social circle including Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and even Albert Einstein. They and their four children — Annie, Hilda, Hans and Luise —lived in an architect-designed villa in Potsdam, just outside Berlin. They were active in the Jewish community, helping to set up a charity to help Eastern European Jews living in poverty.

The couple also had an enviable art collection, ranging from Dutch Old Masters to the Kandinsky painting, acquired not long after its completion.

Siegbert Stern died of natural causes in 1935, but Johanna, in the face of increasing Nazi threats, was eventually forced to flee Germany. Johanna arrived in the Netherlands via Switzerland in 1937 and managed, with the help of her son Hans, to retrieve some of her furniture and art collection.

In 1941 the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and Johanna Stern was declared stateless. In exchange for the promise of an emigration visa, she handed over to the Nazis a specially acquired painting by Henri Fantin-Latour, a painting acquired at great cost.

But the promised visa never materialised and Johanna was forced to sell much of her collection to survive. She went into hiding in Bussum, near Amsterdam, but was captured and murdered in Auschwitz in May 1944.

One of the Stern daughters, Luise, and her husband, also hiding in Amsterdam, were also deported and murdered. But they were able to hand over their seven-year-old daughter, Dolly, into the care of their nanny, who hid the child in various houses all over Amsterdam. 
Dolly’s experience in hiding was truly harrowing.

She was hidden in a tiny annex in a house used as a doctor’s surgery, and left alone for most of the time. When there were raids by police or German soldiers she had to hide under floorboards or under the sink.

Dolly survived the war and died as recently as 2014. Her diaries are due to be published soon by her family.

The painting — which goes on sale on March 1 — can be viewed at Sotheby’s in London from February 22-March 1. The proceeds of the sale will be shared among the 13 surviving Stern family heirs, and fund further research into other works in the original art collection.

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

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