Stunning $ 30 million Van Gogh watercolor reappears in Christie’s New York after a complex behind-the-scenes deal

Vincent van Gogh’s vibrant watercolor of wheat stacks in a Provencal courtyard to be auctioned at Christie’s, New York on November 11th. The painting, last exhibited in 1905, has never been reproduced in color. It is estimated to raise $ 20m- $ 30m.

Wheat stacks (Meules de Blé) has come up for sale after complex negotiations, facilitated by Christie’s, which involved three parties. These are the descendants of two Jewish families who owned Van Gogh in the Nazi era 1933-45 and the current seller, the heirs of Edwin Cox (1921-2020), and Texan oilman. The Cox family is also selling two other Van Goghs, which together should bring in more than $ 70 million. All three date from 1888-90, the artist’s most coveted period in France.

The watercolor of wheat stacks was painted in early June 1888, when Van Gogh was working in Arles and was at the height of his powers. It represents a study that a few days later led to an oil painting of the same subject, now at the Kröller-Müller Museum.

Van Gogh’s wheat stacks in Provence, oil (June 1888) Greetings from the Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

A week later, Vincent sent the watercolor to his brother Theo. In 1905, his widow Jo Bonger lent it to the great Van Gogh retrospective held in Amsterdam. Two years later, she sold the work to the Parisian artist and collector Gustave Fayet.

In 1913 Wheat stacks was bought by Max Meirowsky (1866-1949), a Berlin-based industrialist. He had a fine collection of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, including Van Goghs Portrait of Camille Roulin (1888) (now in the Museum of Art, São Paulo).

After the Nazis took power, Meirowsky faced persecution as a Jew and in 1938 he fled to Amsterdam. He then confided Wheat stacks to Paul Graupe, a German Jewish art dealer who was working in Paris at the time.

Shortly afterwards, the watercolor was purchased by Paris-based Alexandrine de Rothschild (1884-1965), a member of the wealthy Jewish family of bankers. She was also an admirer of Van Gogh who owns House with sunflowers (1887) (now in another private collection). De Rothschild fled to Switzerland at the outbreak of World War II.

Wheat stacks remained in Paris after the German occupation of the city in June 1940. In 1941, the watercolor was seized and held at the Jeu de Paume, where looted art was collected. A few weeks later it was sent to Austria (then annexed to Germany), to Schloss Kogl in St Georgen im Attergau.

After the war, De Rothschild tried to recover Wheat stacks but failed. The watercolor’s immediate post-war history is unclear, but in 1978 it was with the branch in the Wildenstein Gallery in New York, owned by a Parisian Jewish family. Wildenstein sold Van Gogh to Cox the following year.

Cox hung the watercolor in the living room of his Dallas mansion. At this point, his ownership of Van Gogh remained a secret, known only to his family and close friends.

After Cox’s death last year, the sale of his fabulous art collection was arranged with Christies and the question of status Wheat stacks became urgent as it would have been impossible to sell it if there were claims from the Nazi.

Meirowsky’s heir, acting through Berlin’s lawyers Von Trott zu Solz Lammek, claimed that Van Gogh had been the subject of a “forced sale” in 1938. De Rothschild’s heirs claimed that the watercolor had been looted by the Nazi occupiers three years later. The parties subsequently agreed on a settlement.

Christie’s catalog entry states: “The current work is being offered for sale in accordance with a settlement agreement between the current owner, heir to Max Meirowsky and heirs to Alexandrine de Rothschild. The settlement agreement resolves the dispute over ownership of the work, and ownership passes to the successful bidder. ”

Even if the terms remain confidential, the sales revenue is likely to be divided into an agreed share and / or with fixed amounts. With Christie’s estimate of $ 20- $ 30 million. Is it very likely that it will reach a record price for a Van Gogh work on paper.

So far, the highest price for a Van Gogh watercolor was the £ 8.8 million paid at Sotheby’s in 1997 for The harvest. This was also painted in June 1888, within a day or two of Wheat stacks.

Together with Wheat stacks, Cox two other Van Goghs come to Christies. Wooden huts among the olive trees and cypresses (Cabanes de bois parmi les oliviers et cyprès) is a characteristic Provencal landscape, painted in October 1889 just outside the asylum where the artist lived at the time. Although no estimate has been announced, Christie’s believes this fine picture should provide around $ 40 million.

Van Gogh’s wooden huts among the olive trees and cypresses (October 1889) © Christie’s Images Ltd 2021

The third Van Gogh is Young man with cornflower (Jeune Homme au Bleuet), painted in Auvers-sur-Oise in June 1890, the month before the artist’s death. Christie’s describes the unidentified babysitter as “a child of the fields, a naughty ragamuffin”. Although the auction house justifies it to a “young man”, in the early 20th century it was described as a portrait of a girl.

Van Gogh’s Young Man with Cornflower (June 1890) © Christie’s Images Ltd 2021

Young man with cornflower is a curious portrait of a youthful hair with a red face and a cornflower in its mouth. Although the brushwork is typical of Van Gogh’s late work, it is by no means a conventional portrait — and thus the relatively modest estimate of $ 5 to $ 7 million.

Despite the fact that Young man with cornflower was done in the same month as the record Portrait of Dr. Gachet, they are certainly not in the same league. Portrait of Dr. Gachet sold for $ 82.5 million. in 1990, still the highest price for a Van Gogh. It has since disappeared in a mysterious private collection.

Interestingly enough, Young man with cornflower was exhibited in the groundbreaking Jellyfish and the Post-Impressionists exhibition in London in 1910. It was probably well regarded at the time by the curator, Roger Fry, and the lender, Jo Bonger.

The British public certainly disagreed. Critics described the painting as “a study in advanced madness” (Tatler, November 23, 1910) and “the visualized ravings of an adult maniac” (Morgenpost, November 7, 1910). The sketch ran a rendering of the portrait alongside works in the show under the headline “Giving Amusement to all London: Paintings by Post-Impressionists”. Now estimated at $ 5m- $ 7m, the artist should have the last laugh.

“Entertaining the whole of London: paintings by post-impressionists”, The sketch, November 16, 1910

The three Cox Van Goghs appear at Christie’s, London on 17-21. October.

Other Van Gogh news

• Still life: Vase with Gladioli (Nature Morte: Vase aux Glaïeuls) (August-September 1886) was sold for HK $ 71 million. ($ 9.1 million) in Sotheby’s, Hong Kong on October 9th. This was just below the low estimate. The buyer was an Asian collector.

Martin Bailey’s latest Van Gogh books

Martin Bailey is the author of Van Gogh’s Finale: Auvers and the Artist’s Rise to Fame (Francis Lincoln, 2021, available in the UK and the United States). He is a leading Van Gogh specialist and investigative reporter for Kunstavisen. Bailey has curated Van Gogh exhibitions at the Barbican Art Gallery and Compton Verney / National Gallery of Scotland. He was co-curator of Tate Britain’s EY Exhibition: Van Gogh and the UK (March 27-August 11, 2019). He has written a number of other best-selling books, including The Sunflowers Are Mine: The Story of Van Gogh’s Masterpiece (Frances Lincoln 2013, available in the UK and the United States), Studio of the South: Van Gogh in Provence (Frances Lincoln 2016, available in the UK and the United States) and Starry Night: Van Gogh at the Asylum (White Lion Publishing 2018, available in the UK and the United States). Bailey’s Living with Vincent van Gogh: The Homes and Landscapes That Shaped the Artist (White Lion Publishing 2019, available in the UK and the United States) provides an overview of the artist’s life. Van Goghs illustrated Provence Letters has been republished (Batsford 2021, available in the UK) and the United States).

• To contact Martin Bailey, please email: Please refer inquiries for approval of possible Van Goghs to the Van Gogh Museum.

Read more from Martin’s adventure with Van Gogh’s blog here

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