This March in London, Sotheby’s will offer for sale one of the greatest paintings by Kandinsky ever to come to market. Dating from a transformative moment in Kandinsky’s career, Murnau mit Kirche II (1910) encapsulates the very beginnings of the revolutionary abstract language that would underpin the rest of Kandinsky’s career – and set the next generation of artists on a new path. Executed on an impressive scale, in the near-square format favoured by avant-garde contemporaries from Monet to Klimt, and with a rich palette of contrasting hues, the newly-restituted painting has a remarkable history.
Soon after it was painted, the work was acquired by Johanna Margarete Stern (née Lippmann, 1874–1944) and Siegbert Samuel Stern (1864–1935). Johanna Margarete and Siegbert (who had found success in the textile business) were at the heart of the famously glittering cultural life of 1920s Berlin, with a social circle that included Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein. Together they built an impressive art collection consisting of well over 100 paintings and drawings, the scope of which reflected their multifaceted tastes and interests, ranging from Dutch Old Masters to much more recent, ground-breaking works by Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Lovis Corinth, Odilon Redon, Max Liebermann, Edvard Munch and Max Pechstein.
Everything changed, however, following the rise to power of the Nazis: although Siegbert died of natural causes in 1935, Johanna Margarete was eventually forced to flee Germany, in spite of which she still did not escape the Holocaust. In the course of these terrible events, the Sterns’ spectacular art collection was dispersed.
Identified just under ten years ago on the walls of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, where it had been hanging since 1951, Kandinsky’s Murnau mit Kirche II was recently restituted to the descendants of the Stern family. It will now be offered for sale with an estimate in the region of $45 million, with the proceeds to be shared between the thirteen surviving Stern heirs. The sale of the work will also fund further research into the fate of the family’s collection.
Early works by Kandinsky rarely come to the market, with the lion’s share residing in major museum collections across the world. Ahead of its sale in London on 1 March, the painting will be exhibited at Sotheby’s Hong Kong (5-7 February), New York (11-15 February) and London (22 February-1 March).
“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.”
“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.”
“This year marks the 25th anniversary of the conference, held in Washington, D.C., that first established the ground rules for the restitution of art works looted by the Nazis during the Second World War. 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.”