Kandinsky painting stolen by Nazis fetches $45 million at auction

Returned to the owner's family last year, Murnau with Church II was sold by Sotheby's in London

The proceeds of Wassily Kandinsky’s Murnau with Church II will be split by 13 of the original owners' heirs. Getty Images
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A painting by Wassily Kandinsky that spent decades in a Dutch museum after its Jewish owner was murdered in the Holocaust has sold at auction for £37.2 million ($44.9 million).

Murnau mit Kirche II (Murnau with Church II) set a record price for the Russian artist in a sale at Sotheby’s in London on Wednesday. Completed in 1910, the brightly coloured landscape of a Bavarian village foreshadows the bold abstract imagery of Kandinsky’s later work.

The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven returned the painting last year to the descendants of German Jewish art collectors Johanna Margarethe Stern and Siegbert Samuel Stern.

Siegbert died in 1935 and Johanna fled Nazi Germany for Amsterdam, where she was forced to sell much of her collection. She was arrested after the Nazis occupied the Netherlands and died in the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1944.

Sotheby’s said proceeds from the sale will be shared between 13 surviving Stern heirs and will also fund further research into the fate of the family’s collection.

In 2013, Dutch museums identified 139 artworks as Nazi loot, including paintings from masters such as Kandinsky, Henri Matisse and Paul Klee.

In 2021, the municipality of Amsterdam agreed to return another Kandinsky work, Painting With Houses, to the heirs of the Jewish family that originally owned it. The city bought it at auction in 1940 and it had hung in the Stedelijk Museum.

Lucian Simmons, Sotheby’s worldwide head of restitution, noted that this year marks the 25th anniversary of an international conference on looted art in Washington that found previous attempts to return looted art didn’t go far enough.

“Since then, Sotheby’s restitution department has worked with many heirs and families to reunite them with their stolen property and, at the same time, to help retell their stories and celebrate their lives,” Simmons said.

Another restituted work, Edvard Munch’s Dance on the Beach, sold at the same Sotheby’s auction for £16.9 million ($20.5 million).

The vast painting, one of several designed for theatre impresario Max Reinhardt, was bought in the 1930s by Norwegian ship owner Thomas Olsen after its Jewish owner, Curt Glaser, was forced to flee Nazi Germany.

Olsen hid his large collection of Munch works — including a version of his most famous painting, The Scream — during the Nazi occupation of Norway during the Second World War.

Sotheby’s said the painting had been sold “subject to an agreement” between the Olsen and Glaser families.

Updated: March 03, 2023, 1:37 PM