A watercolor by Vincent van Gogh, seized by the Nazis during World War II and not publicly exhibited since 1905, is to be sold at auction next month in New York, where experts at Christie’s estimate it could sell for between $20 and $30 million.
The proceeds of the sale of the work, “Meules de Blé” (“Wheatstacks”), created by van Gogh in 1888, will be split between the current owner — the family of Edwin Cox, a Texan oil businessman — and the heirs of two Jewish families whose predecessors owned the work during World War II.
In a statement, Giovanna Bertazzoni, Christie’s vice chairman of 20th and 21st century art, called the image of a French farmyard a “tour de force of exceptional quality.” The auction house said it could set a new world auction record for a work on paper by van Gogh. (The highest previous price was about $14.7 million for “La Moisson en Provence”in 1997.)
The watercolor was once owned by Max Meirowsky, a Berlin-based manufacturer, who purchased it in 1913.
But when the Nazis seized power in Germany, Meirowsky, who was Jewish, fled the country in 1938, ultimately entrusting “Meules de Blé” to Paul Graupe, a German Jewish art dealer who was working in Paris.
The pastoral piece was then purchased from the dealer in Paris by Alexandrine de Rothschild, part of a Jewish family of bankers. When the Second World War began, de Rothschild fled to Switzerland. The watercolor was confiscated by the Nazis after the German invasion of France.
It was taken to the Jeu de Paume museum, then a Nazi sorting house for looted art, in 1941. Later, it was sent to the Schloss Kogl castle in Austria, which was at the time annexed into Germany.
The artwork’s path after the war remains unclear, but by 1978, it was in the gallery of Wildenstein & Co. in New York, which sold it the following year to Cox.
The Christie’s statement did not address the basis of the competing claims on the piece by the heirs of Meirowsky and de Rothschild. But the Art Newspaper, which first reported that the van Gogh would be part of Christie’s sale of works from the Cox collection on Nov. 11, said the Meirowsky heirs have said the work was a “forced sale” in 1938.
In its sale materials, Christie’s notes that the work is being sold pursuant to an agreement between the current owner and the Meirowsky and de Rothschild heirs.