Next month, Christie’s will sell a watercolour on paper landscape scene by Vincent Van Gogh with an estimate of $20-30 million. Christie’s played a pivotal role in facilitating the negotiations of this sale, which involves three different parties. Two are the descendants of Jewish collectors who previously owned the work during the Nazi era and sold the watercolour under duress, and the other is the heirs of the most recent owner, Texas businessman Edwin Cox (1921-2020).
Meules de Blé (‘Wheatstacks’) depicts towering haystacks in Arles, France, with figures and a village beyond. Van Gogh’s pastoral scene was executed at the beginning of June 1888 and is one of the first in his landmark series of harvest paintings from the period. The present sheet is a study for an oil on canvas painting he would produce a few days later of the same subject, Wheat stacks in Provence, now at the Kröller-Müller Museum. Christie’s have high hopes for the sale of this work, with Giovanna Bertazzoni, Christie’s Vice Chairman of 20th and 21st century art, calling the watercolour a “tour de force of exceptional quality”.
Van Gogh wrote to his brother Theo about the work he was doing in Arles, saying, “as for landscapes, I’m beginning to find that some, done more quickly than ever, are among the best things I do”. He subsequently sent Meules de Blé to Theo and, in 1905, Theo’s widow Johanna van Gogh-Bonger lent it to the major Van Gogh retrospective held in Amsterdam. This was the last time the watercolour would be seen by the public until today. In 1907, Johanna sold the work to the Parisian artist and collector Gustave Fayet. In 1913, the Berlin-based industrialist Max Meirowsky (1866-1949) purchased the work, adding it to his impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. Meirowsky was forced to auction his works in November 1938, shortly before he fled Germany. The following year, Alexandrine de Rothschild purchased the watercolour in Paris, however with the outbreak of war Alexandrine fled to Switzerland, and her art collection was confiscated by the Nazis during the German occupation of Paris. It is unclear where Meules de Blé went after this, but in 1979 Texan oil magnate Edwin Cox purchased the work from New York dealer Wildenstein & Co. Inc., and hung it in the drawing room of his Dallas mansion.
Both the heirs of Max Meirowsky and Alexandrine de Rothschild will be entitled to money from the sale of Meules de Blé. Marc Porter, Christie’s Americas Chairman, said in a statement: “It is especially moving that Christie’s Restitution has been so deeply involved with this collection”, and that, “we have made WW2 period provenance research a hallmark of our expertise, inextricably a part of the art historical framework.” The previous record for a Van Gogh watercolour is £8.8 million, paid at Sotheby’s in 1997 for The Harvest, a work created within days of the present sheet. Meules de Blé will feature at auction alongside many other highlights from the Cox Collection, including paintings by Claude Monet, Odilon Redon, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Cézanne.