Holocaust victim’s Kandinsky painting sells for $44.5 million
The great-grandchildren of an avid art collector and Auschwitz victim sold their great-grandparent’s painting to fund finding more of their lost art collection
A painting previously owned by Johanna Margarete Stern, who died in the Auschwitz concentration camp, recently sold for £37.2 million ($44.55 million) at Sotheby’s in London, according to reports.
Wassily Kandinsky painted it in 1910 while living in Murnau, Bavaria.
“Kandinsky’s Murnau period came to define abstract art for future generations,” Helena Newman, chairman of Sotheby’s Europe and Worldwide head of impressionist and modern art, said in a statement.
The colorful painting was the backdrop of the dining room in Johanna Margarete and Siegbert Stern’s home. They were said to be avid art collectors and friends with prominent individuals. According to The Guardian, “Its original owners were friends with some of the most influential writers and thinkers of their day including Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein. The couple’s collection of more than 100 artworks ranged from Dutch old master paintings to Renoir and modern artists including Munch and Kandinsky.”
With the Nazi rise to power, the couple’s lives were forever changed. Siegbert Stern died of natural causes in 1935. Newly widowed, Johanna Margarete fled Germany and followed her children to the Netherlands in fear of Nazi authority. But she failed to get a visa and was deemed stateless. She was eventually deported to Auschwitz, where she died in 1944.
According to family documents, the Kandinsky painting, among the couple’s other collections of artwork, were seized by a dealer who stole property owned by Jews, causing the location of much of their artwork to be unknown.
Sotheby’s website says, “The painting was acquired in 1951 by the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven from the Austrian-born dealer Karl Legat. ... The Van Abbemuseum restituted the Kandinsky to the heirs of Siegbert and Johanna Margarete Stern in 2022.”
Lucian Simmons, Sotheby’s vice chairman and its head of restitution, said, “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.”
Part of the proceeds for the sale of the Kandinsky’s artwork is reported to be funding efforts of the 13 surviving relatives of Johanna Margarete and Siegbert Stern to find more of their great-grandparents’ lost artwork, according to CNN.
“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 acknowledgment and partially closes a wound that has remained open over the generations,” the family’s heirs said in a statement.