After Disappearing for Decades, a van Gogh Watercolor Sold Under Duress and Then Stolen by Nazis, May Fetch $30M

In 1905, Vincent van Gogh’s “Meules de blé” (“Stacks of Wheat”) was displayed to the public for the last time in what would be over a century. From this extraordinary retrospective on van Gogh at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1905, “Meules de blé” would go on an unexpected journey across Europe, hidden from public view in private collections. It would bear witness to the world wars; be sold under duress and then looted by the Nazis; cross borders secretly; and remain missing for decades. The global odyssey of the painting from then to now reveals seismic shifts in not only the art world, but also the turbulent evolution of society as a whole. It reappears in the public record in 1978 when it was listed for auction, but remained in private hands thereafter. For the first time since 1905, it is back on view to the public, at Rockefeller Center, in advance of its sale at a Christie’s auction tomorrow, November 11. 

The sale of “Meules de blé” is particularly notable because it will offer financial restitution to the heirs of two Jewish collectors who lost the work during World War II: Max Meirowsky, who sold the work to fund his escape from Germany, and Alexandrine Rothschild, who had the artwork stolen by the Nazis after she fled from France to Switzerland. Eileen Brankovic, international business director of Christie’s restitution department, explained in a phone interview that it is unusual to see both circumstances at play: a sale under duress and looting. It reflects a growing awareness in the art world that World War II restitutions must address not only looted art but also forced sales by owners persecuted for racial and religious reasons. 

The Cox Collection on view at Rockefeller Center (photo by and courtesy Michelle Young/Untapped New York)

“Meules de blé” is one of three van Gogh works amongst an impressive collection of Impressionist master paintings that belonged to the Texan oil magnate Edwin L. Cox. The Cox Collection is expected to bring in over $200 million in sales, including the auction of notable works by Cézanne, Renoir, Monet, Caillebotte, Pissarro, Sisley, and more. Several lots were last displayed publicly in the 1930s, before World War II. 

Within the Cox Collection, “Meules de blé” commands our attention. It is the only watercolor, showcasing van Gogh’s signature brushstroke in a light, featherweight way. He applies the disciplined drawing techniques he developed from his earlier career as a draughtsman. The painting makes visible his precise stroke work, done in pen and ink over pencil. It demonstrates a sense of control that contradicts a prevailing narrative about van Gogh’s work: that his style reflected his deteriorating mental state. While the wheat stacks are the main subject in the painting, the buildings in the background reveal van Gogh’s acute attention to detail. Tomorrow, “Meules de blé” is expected to set a new auction record for a work on paper by van Gogh, with a sale estimate between $20 and $30 million.

Detail view of Vincent an Gogh, “Meules de blé” (photo by and courtesy Michelle Young/Untapped New York)

Although van Gogh did not achieve critical or financial success during his life, his work began to achieve posthumous acclaim after his death in 1890, particularly in Germany by the outbreak of World War I. According to the co-curator of the 2019 exhibition Making Van Gogh: A German Love Story at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, van Gogh was “by far the most popular modern artist in Germany” between the wars.

During World War II, it was a perfect storm; the Nazi regime utilized the looting of artwork as a systematic weapon of subjugation against Jews. Although van Gogh was considered a “degenerate” artist by the Third Reich, his popularity had been well-established in Germany thanks to the efforts of Jewish collectors, who held the majority of his works. This meant that van Gogh paintings were still valuable to collect, and Nazi officials eagerly added them to their private collections. 

One of the German Jewish collectors targeted by the Nazis was Max Meirowsky, a wealthy industrialist who purchased “Meules de blé” in 1913. As the Nazis stepped up their persecution of the Jews, he and his family were specifically targeted, and he was forced to sell his art collection to finance his escape to Switzerland. Christie’s states that “Meules de blé” was “the crown jewel of Meirowsky’s collection” and that Meirowsky brought the painting with him on his escape to Geneva and entrusted it to Paul Graupe & Cie., the Parisian arm of a Berlin-based auction house. Clearly, even at that time, it was valuable enough for Meirowsky to physically bring it with him on his escape. 

Christie’s Restitution has been instrumental in uncovering critical parts of the painting’s lost pre-war history. Brankovic told me that “the art historical literature on the painting referenced it as being part of the Max Meirowsky collection but it wasn’t clear when it left his collection.” Research by Christie’s uncovered that the painting was at the gallery Graupe & Cie, where it was sold to Alexandrine Rothschild. 

Detail view of Vincent an Gogh, “Meules de blé” (photo by and courtesy Michelle Young/Untapped New York)

Christie’s work in World War II-related restitution dates back to the late 1990s. In 1998, chairman of Christie’s America Marc Porter participated in the Washington Conference on Holocaust Era Assets, from where a set of non-binding principles was developed to resolve issues connected to Nazi-confiscated art. Brankovic said that Christie’s has the “largest team focused on restitution-era matters” and is “the only international auction house that has publicly available restitution guidelines; we publish our approach to Nazi-era restitution matters on our website so there is transparency.” The most famous restitution case Christie’s has handled is the sale of Gustav Klimt’s “Portrait of Adele-Bloch-Bauer,” a story made into the film Woman in Gold

“Our mission is to ensure that we’re not unknowingly putting spoliated work into the marketplace and we have a team of provenance researchers in New York, London, Vienna, and Berlin, who are committed to ensuring that and uncovering the stories of these objects that [have] complicated paths during the Nazi era,” Brankovic continued.

(However, auctions of other looted works have not been without controversy, particularly those that fall outside of Nazi-era restitution. Just yesterday, Taíno protestors gathered in front of Christie’s New York in opposition of a sale of Indigenous art.)

Chateau Rothschild (photo by and courtesy Anne-Clare Pasquet/Untapped New York)Chateau Rothschild (photo by and courtesy Anne-Clare Pasquet/Untapped New York)

Part of the day-to-day job of Christie’s Restitution is also to look at the works of art coming in and comparing it against Nazi-looted artwork databases. That is where the team discovered the painting’s connection to the Rothschilds. The painting was stolen from Rothschild’s chateau in Boulogne-Billancourt, a town on the outskirts of Paris. It was then sent for processing at the Jeu de Paume museum, the headquarters of the Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce (ERR) in Paris, in April 1941. The ERR was formed in 1940 in Paris on Hitler’s orders to seize the cultural belongings of Jews and the enemies of the Third Reich. 

Located across from the Louvre, the Jeu de Paume functioned as a clearinghouse for looted artworks. One of the main missions of the looting operation was to supply art for Hitler’s planned Führermuseum in Linz, Austria, but Nazi officials like Hermann Göring would come to utilize it as their personal cache and took an abundance of its loot. On staff at the ERR were art historians who were knowledgeable about the artworks desirable to top Nazi brass, like Hitler and Göring.

After arriving to the Jeu de Paume in April 1941, the painting was transferred to Schloss Kogl, a castle in Austria that was the headquarters of the ERR, on June 18 of that year. From there, its whereabouts are unaccounted for until 1978, when it was acquired from an unidentified owner by Wildenstein & Co. Inc., which in turn sold it to Edwin Cox in 1979. The provenance is listed as “private collection” for the intervening years. After the war, Alexandrine Rothschild tried to recover the artworks that were stolen from her, but much remained missing, including “Meules de blé.”

From a historical perspective, an unacounted for gap of 33 years between the end of World War II and 1978 seems significant; it is longer than the period in which Meirowsky and Rothschild combined owned the painting. I posed to Christie’s whether this causes any issue for the title of the painting, and if the private collection owner is known to Christie’s or was known to the Wildenstein gallery. In response, Christie’s press relations team said: “Details of the exact path of this work are lost to time and identity of the private collection could not be confirmed. We cannot comment on what the communications might have been in the late 70s between Wildenstein and Cox.” 

At the press preview, Marc Porter explained to me that the rules on title are different in Europe than in the United States. If a work of art had been in someone’s possession for 30 years, the title is vested in them — meaning the ownership belongs to them even if it had been stolen (this is known as prescriptive possession, and length of time and other specifics of the law vary by country). Thus, in regards to the sale of “Meules de blé,” the postwar time period was accounted for when the painting came to market in 1978. 

ERR Card for “Meules de blé” (via US National Archives)ERR Card for “Meules de blé” (via US National Archives)

I turned to historian Jonathan Petropoulos, since “Meules de blé” followed the same path he reported on so thoroughly in the book Göring’s Man in Paris. Petropoulos spent nearly a decade interviewing Bruno Lohse, a German SS-Hauptsturmführer and deputy director of the ERR in Paris. Lohse was known to have hidden paintings at war’s end and returned to his career as an art dealer after the war. When he died in 2007, 14 paintings, including works by Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Corot, Dürer, and a Nazi-looted Pissarro, were discovered in his Swiss bank vault. Petropoulos explained  that Lohse’s movements align with the path of “Meules de blé.” Lohse arrived as the deputy director of the Jeu de Paume a few months before the painting came through and he went back and forth to Schloss Kogl in the spring of 1945. ERR-looted artworks were usually sent to Neuschwanstein Castle and the salt mines at Altaussee, so the transfer of “Meules de blé” to Schloss Kogl is definitely of note. “I think there’s a very good chance that this is a work that Lohse was able to commandeer during the war,” he said. 

Regardless, he added, “I don’t see a problem in terms of moving forward with a sale because Christie’s did come to terms with the heirs and Christie’s is very good at those settlements.” At the same time, he feels that “obviously they have a huge gap in their provenance with some red flags that are there.” 

If this painting did come from Lohse, he may have used an elaborate ruse to bring the painting to market, concealing his identity through foundations. This seems to have been his modus operandi for moving paintings after the war. However, there is nothing in the record that directly connects “Meules de blé” to Lohse.

Regarding the restitution work of Christie’s in World War II looted art sales, Bankovic explained that Christie’s aims to provide an “alternative dispute resolution” for these types of works and assists to keep ownership disputes out of the courts. “Restitution cases are this mix of legal, moral, and practical concerns and our approach and involvement, where we can, is to facilitate a non-litigious dialogue and alternate means of claims resolution,” she said. Based on its research, Christie’s sought out the Meirowsky and Rothschild heirs and oversaw the complex multi-party negotiation. When the painting sells on Thursday, the dispute over its ownership will be resolved and the new owner will receive a clear title. 

“Meules de blé” on view at Rockefeller Center (photo by and courtesy Michelle Young/Untapped New York)

Despite this herculean effort, the question of its postwar whereabouts looms large from a journalistic perspective. Legal considerations aside, when decades of history of a certain artwork is unaccounted for, and when its last-known location during the war is a Nazi-held castle for looted artwork, is there any moral obligation to account for this period? How might that information be found when there was no legal necessity to account for it then or now? 

This all begs the question of how the practice regarding restituted art will evolve, given its fairly nascent history. The principles surrounding confiscated art are focused on the prewar owners, so it makes sense that restitution currently aims at either returning the art to the heirs or financially compensating them. But should new principles be formulated to better address how spoliated art makes its way back to market? Hopefully the trend continues towards greater transparency, as looted art continues to resurface. It is estimated that at least 100,000 Nazi-confiscated artworks have yet to be recovered.

The World War II provenance gives a particular historical distinction to “Meules de blé” amidst the works that will be sold from the Cox Collection. The fact that art can be a mechanism by which some of the wrongs of World War II can be rectified is certainly inspiring and a cause for optimism. Wherever “Meules de blé” ends up after the auction, one hopes it will be viewable to the public in the future as a reminder of its place in history as a witness to the barbarities of war, and as a reflection of the actions that individuals, businesses, and governments can take years later to amend the atrocities of the past. 

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