Van Gogh Watercolor Seized By Nazis Sells For Record $35.8 Million

Vincent Van Gogh's watercolor with a twisty provenance, which includes two Jewish families as well as Nazi art collectors, sold Thursday for $35.8 Million. This is a record price for Van Gogh's watercolors on paper.

Vincent Van Gogh's watercolor was last seen in public for more than 100 years, before it went up for auction. Getty Images via Anadolu Agency

The Key Facts

"Meules de ble", one of the first harvest paintings Van Gogh created in June 1888 in Arles, southern France. He was there to establish an artists colony along with fellow Post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin. Max Meirowsky, an industrialist from Germany and Jewish descent, purchased the painting in 1913. He sold it to help his family escape Germany in 1938, when persecution of Jews was increasing. The painting belonged to Alexandrine de Rothschild who was a member the French branch of a wealthy Jewish banking family. After Rothchild fled to Switzerland, Nazis confiscated her art trove. She recovered some of the missing pieces after the war. "Meules de ble" remained unclaimed for decades. In 1978 Wildenstein & Co. sold the painting and Edwin L. Cox bought it. Cox was an oil tycoon from Texas who loved Impressionist paintings. According to The Art Newspaper, Cox hung "Meules de ble” in his Dallas drawing room. The painting remained his secret possession until his death last January. Christie's stated that the auction house assisted in settling the estates of Cox Meirowsky, Rothschild and Meules de ble, which allowed the painting to be sold.

The auction of the watercolor took place as part of "The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism" evening... [+] sale at New York. NDZ/STARMAX/IPx


This painting's ownership story shows how complex art restitution can be. Christie's staff pointed out that not only are Nazi seizures being scrutinized, but also sales by Jewish families who were forced to or under duress. Private collectors and museums are now more interested in the provenance of their collections, particularly artifacts that were taken from their country of origin to Europe during colonial times.

Art handlers with "Cabanes de bois parmi ces oliviers et cypres” and "Meules de ble", both by Vincent van... [+] Gogh were auctioned on Thursday. PA Images via Getty Images

Important Background

"Meules de ble," a painting that was expected to fetch between $20 million-$30 million at auction, shattered all previous estimates. Christie's New York and London showrooms displayed the watercolor before it was seen by the public. The painting hadn't been seen in public for more than 100 years, since it was included in a huge Van Gogh retrospective at Amsterdam's Stedelijk Museum. Six months after Van Gogh had painted the haystacks of "Meules de ble", his plans to start an artists colony failed. Van Gogh experienced a nervous breakdown in December 1888 after an argument with Gauguin. He famously cut off his own ear in order to give it to a local woman from Arles. "La Moisson En Provence," the Van Gogh's most expensive painting on paper, sold for close to $15 million in 1997.

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