Over a century since it was last seen in public, a vibrant Vincent van Gogh painting once seized by the Nazis is heading to auction.
The watercolor of a harvest scene, titled “Meules de blé” (“Wheat Stacks”), depicts women working in the fields at Arles, France, and is expected to sell for up to $30 million.
Van Gogh painted the scene in 1888 after he retreated to the French countryside amid a period of poor health. While in Arles, he became enamored with the pastoral lifestyle around him, and “Meules de blé” was one of several harvest-themed works he created during this period.
The auction house behind the sale, Christie’s, said in its catalog that the watercolor demonstrates Van Gogh’s “obsession with Japonisme,” which saw him adopting a more graphic style akin to Japanese woodcuts.
Despite the tranquil scene depicted, the painting has a troubled history. It initially belonged to Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, and later changed hands before being purchased by Max Meirowsky, a Jewish industrialist, in 1913. Facing anti-Semitic persecution in Germany, Meirowsky was forced to flee, and he entrusted the painting to a German art dealership in Paris, according to Christie’s.
The watercolor came into the possession of Miriam Caroline Alexandrine de Rothschild, who herself fled to Switzerland following the outbreak of World War II. During the occupation of France, the Nazis looted De Rothschild’s collection, taking “Meules de blé,” among other pieces.
In 1941, the painting was transferred to Jeu de Paume, a museum used by the Nazis to store and exhibit artworks deemed “degenerate” or otherwise confiscated. According to Christie’s, “Meules de blé” was then taken to the Schloss Kogl castle in Austria, where it entered an unnamed private collection.
While De Rothschild attempted to retrieve her lost paintings after the fall of the Nazi regime, the Van Gogh eluded her. In 1978, it was acquired by the Wildenstein & Co. gallery in New York, where it was purchased by the late art collector Edward Lochridge Cox, a Texan oil magnate with a penchant for impressionism. The watercolor is part of a larger Christie’s sale of his collection, which includes paintings by other famed artists including Paul Cézanne and Claude Monet.
Following Cox’s death, an ownership dispute emerged between Cox’s estate and the heirs of both Meirowsky and De Rothschild. Christie’s notes in its catalog that the parties have since come to a “settlement agreement,” but declined to comment further on the matter.
The painting was last seen in public in 1905, when it was displayed as part of a larger Van Gogh retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
Nazi-looted artworks have been at the center of several ownership disputes in recent years. Among them are impressionist Gari Melchers’ “Winter,” which was confiscated by the Nazis from a Jewish family and only recently returned to its descendants, and a Camille Pissarro portrait at the center of longstanding disagreement between the University of Oklahoma and the heir to a French Jewish family.