The Cologne auction house Kunsthaus Lempertz said it will sell a Wassily Kandinsky watercolor worth more than $1 million, dismissing a claim from heirs of a pre-World War II owner who say it was stolen by the Nazis.
The 1923 painting, “Zwei Schwarze Flecke” (“Two Black Marks”) is the top lot in Lempertz’s modern art sale tomorrow, with a value estimated at 900,000 euros ($1.2 million) to 1 million euros. The catalog says it was a gift from Kandinsky to Sophie Lissitzky-Kueppers, yet stops short of mentioning that her heirs are fighting to get it back.
The dispute hinges on differing versions of events more than 80 years ago. The heirs say the watercolor was one of 16 works Lissitzky-Kueppers loaned to Hanover’s Provinzialmuseum that were later seized by the Nazis. Lempertz says Lissitzky-Kueppers gave away the watercolor in the 1920s.
“The sale will go ahead,” Karl-Sax Feddersen, a member of the Lempertz management board, said by telephone. “We think this claim is totally unfounded.”
Kandinsky, like Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, was among the artists condemned as “degenerate” by the Nazis. Under Joseph Goebbels’s orders, more than 20,000 such works were seized from German museums in 1937. Some were shown in the infamous “Degenerate Art” show the same year in Munich, which drew more than 2 million visitors.
The heirs say they have persuasive evidence that the painting was among those Lissitzky-Kueppers loaned to Hanover in 1926 and later confiscated as “degenerate.”
Lempertz says it can prove the watercolor was in the possession of the family of Lotte Beck, who looked after Lissitzky-Kuepper’s children, until 1989, when the auction house first sold it.
“So far we haven’t seen one single document to prove this story,” said Gunnar Schnabel, a Berlin-based lawyer representing Lissitzky-Kuepper’s heirs. “I find it unacceptable that Lempertz is not warning its customers, particularly the international ones, about our claim.”
Feddersen said Lempertz sees no reason to “tarnish the painting” by alluding to the claim in the catalog.
Among the paintings Lissitzky-Kueppers is known to have loaned to the Hanover museum was Paul Klee’s “Sumpflegende” (Swamp Legend). The artwork, shown in the “Degenerate Art” exhibition, is now in the collection of Munich’s Lenbachhaus museum and the city has refused to restitute it to the heirs.
Lissitzky-Kueppers was a German art historian and collector who emigrated to Moscow to join the Russian artist El Lissitzky, whom she married, according to the book “Lost Pictures, Lost Lives” by Melissa Mueller and Monika Tatzkow.
Banished to Siberia
During World War II, Lissitzky-Kueppers was banished to Siberia by Stalin as a German living in the Soviet Union. She failed to recover her paintings and died in penury in Novosibirsk in 1978.
In November 2007, Lempertz auctioned a 1632 portrait of a bagpipe player to the London art dealer Philip Mould, who sold the painting on to a New York gallery.
The auction house didn’t mention in the provenance details that the work once belonged to Max Stern, a Jewish dealer forced to liquidate his gallery in 1937. U.S. law enforcement officials seized the portrait in New York in April 2009 and returned it to Stern’s heirs. Mould reimbursed the U.S. dealer for his purchase.
“Selling pictures with this kind of provenance is high risk as well as morally dubious,” Mould said by telephone from London. “Contested provenance should also be flagged as a matter of requirement to all potential buyers.”