A recently restituted Kandinsky painting could sell for US$45 million at Sotheby's

This March, an early masterpiece by Wassily Kandinsky – the Russian artist hailed as the Father of Abstract Art – will hit the auction block at Sotheby's London, which is expected to fetch in the region of US$45 million and set a new auction record for the artist. 

The large-scale abstract painting, Murnau with Church II, was recently restituted from the Van Abbermuseum in the Netherlands to the descendants of its former Jewish owner, who was persecuted and murdered during Second World War. 

The proceeds of the sale will be shared between the 13 living heirs, with a portion going toward further research into the fate of the family’s collection.

Lot 117 | Wassily Kandinsky | Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II), Oil on canvas
Created in 1910
96 x 105.5 cm

  • Siegbert Samuel Stern, Berlin (acquired by 1924)
  • Johanna Margarete Stern-Lippmann, Berlin; Locarno; Amsterdam; Bloemendaal and Hilversum (widow of the above; acquired by inheritance from the above in 1935)
  • Myrtil Frank, Berlin and Amsterdam (probably acquired from the above between December 1941 and April 1943)
  • Karl A. Legat, The Hague
  • Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven (acquired from the above in 1951)
  • Restituted to the heirs of Johanna Margarete Stern-Lippmann in 2022

Estimate upon request (in the region of $45 Million)

Auction House: Sotheby's London
Sale: Modern & Contemporary Evening Auction
Date and Time: 1 March 2023 | 7pm (London Time)

Executed in 1910, Murnau with Church II represents a key transformative period in Kandinsky's career, when he was exploring the limits of representation and searching for a new visual language that would communicate what he felt were essential truths about human experience – theories of which he articulated in his seminal text, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, published in 1911.

In the summer of 1908, Kandinsky and his lover visited the Bavarian mountain village of Murnau, a place they quickly fell in love with and purchased a house to spend long summers. Its scenic surroundings then became a central motif in paintings from Kandinsky's breakthrough years of 1909 to 1911, which saw him take his first steps towards abstraction, paving the way for the next generation of artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, leading figures of Abstract Expressionism in post-war America. 

With the near-square format favored by avant-garde contemporaries like Monet and Klimt, Kandinsky encapsulates various artistic influences in the present lot – Paul Cézanne's deconstruction of form, Fauve's vivid and bold colour palette, and Vincent van Gogh's unique landscape idiom. Combining all these styles on one canvas, the artist creates his own distinctive style: an explosion of colour and form that evokes emotion in the viewer. 

Wassily Kandinsky

Soon after it was painted, the work was acquired by Johanna Margarete Stern and Siegbert Samuel Stern, co-founders of a prosperous textile business in Berlin. Together the couple were at the center of the glittering cultural scene of 1920s Berlin, with a social circle that included Thomas Mann, Albert Einstein and Franz Kafka. The Sterns were also influential in the Jewish community, having provided assistance for a charitable organization that supported impoverished Eastern-European Jews. 

Unfortunately, as the Nazi grip on Germany tightened, their flourishing lives were turned upside down. Two years after Siegbert died of natural causes in 1935, anti-Jewish measures only continued to escalate, and Johanna Margarette was eventually forced to flee Germany.

Though arriving in the Netherlands, the persecution towards her did not end. In order to survive, she had no choice but to sell her art collection consisting of well over 100 paintings, which ended up being dispersed across the globe. While she went into hiding in Bussum, near Amsterdam, she was captured and deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp, where she was murdered in 1944.

Johanna Margarete Stern and Siegbert Samuel Stern

The Villa Stern

One of the Stern's daughters and her husband were similarly seized by the German soldiers, but they managed to shield their seven-year-old daughter, Dolly, into the care of her nanny. After making a terrifying solo journey on various trams, Dolly spent the next two and a half years concealed in a single tiny room, staying perfectly quiet in solitude with only a children's bible and a book of fairy tales as her companions. 

Following her death in 2014, Dolly's diaries, which revealed her torturous experience during those war years and the impact that followed, will soon be published.

Speaking of the sale, the heirs of the Sterns said in a statement through Sotheby's, “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.”

Dolly and her parents, Luise and Herbert Hayn

Murnau with Church II was hung in the dining room at Villa Stern

Over the years, the descendants of the Sterns have been on trail of the lost art collection. In 2013, this Kandinsky painting was found on the walls of the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands, where it had been hanging since 1951. 

After a years-long legal dispute, the work was finally restituted to the Sterns family in 2022, and will be auctioned off at Sotheby's London next month with an estimate of at least US$45 million. If it meets the expectation, the work will be the most expensive painting by Kandinsky ever auctioned. 

The artist's current auction record stands at £33 million (US$42 million), set by Bild mit weissen Linien (Painting with White Lines), dated 1909, which was offered at Sotheby's London in 2017. The most recent sale of Kandinsky's painting was in June 2021, when his abstract painting Tensions calmées (Calmed tension) – once owned by Solomon R. Guggenheim, the founder of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City – sold for £21.2 million (US$29.5 million).

Wassily Kandinsky | Bild mit weissen Linien (Painting with White Lines) | Sold for £33,008,750 in 2017

Wassily Kandinsky | Tensions calmées (Calmed Tension) | Sold for £21,224,700 in 2021