PAI’s The week in focus: WWII casts a long shadow on art sales

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Paul Signac's At Flushing a Flessingue (1895). Courtesy of Artsy.

Here’s a question. Do serious art collectors, art connoisseurs, need reports by the popular media, the sort of reports sometimes accompanied by screaming headlines? And do they need the specialist art media?

The answer might be open to question, but more often than not it is “Yes”. Let’s take the continuing morbid interest in anything to do with Europe’s Nazi era. Without the tip-offs from the likes of Hyperallergic.com, Barrons or World Israel News would there have been wide awareness that a number of Impressionist pieces – works by Pissarro and Signac – to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in London in February now enjoy an impeccable provenance, having been restituted to the heirs of the works’ dispossessed wartime owner, the French-Jewish collector Gaston Lévy.

Less questionable is the provenance of 10 works by Alfred Kubin bought from the artist almost a century ago by the Moravian industrialist Max Morgenstern and taken by him to London when he and his wife Bertha fled the Nazis in Austria and Poland.  Sotheby’s will be offering them for the first time in February. And it is well worth reading the auction house’s report on Sothebys.com.

LOT 142, ALFRED KUBIN, KASUARKOPF (HEAD OF A CASSOWARY), 1905, ESTIMATE £25,000–35,000. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Other Kubin works sold by the Morgenstern heirs last year had been returned to them by various public galleries in Europe. And that is so of other restituted pieces coming up for sale in the next few weeks have been returned by other national art galleries. But here’s a snag. Some galleries are resisting making returns.

Take a look at Private Art Investor’s own report on the ownership dispute over a Kandinsky hanging in Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum for the best part of 80 years, since early in WWII. The dispute will feed the art world’s headlines for some time. In the meantime, though, the Arts Council England is attempting to set up rules for how public galleries sin the UK should deal with works of questionable provenance. Turn back to the Hyperallergic article mentioned above for more information. And note that the English moves follows those introduced in Germany and the Netherlands last year.

Wassily Kandinsky, Bild mit Häusern (Painting with houses) (1909)

But let’s move on from this morbid scenario. How much are some other well-known art works likely to fetch at auction in the next few weeks? Barrons is punting Magritte’s A la Rencontre du Plaisir, to be knocked down for at least £12m at Christie’s sale of Surrealist art on February 5th. And Agence France Presse tells its readers that Tamara de Lempicka’s Art Deco masterpiece Portrait de Marjorie Ferry will command the same price on the same day at Christie’s.

An article by Christie’s itself rightly doesn’t venture an opinion on what George Grosz’s will sell for, again on February 5th. But, and here I am sticking my own neck out, what we might receive are indications of where prices of 20th century masterpieces are heading. As for the 21st century, you might well wonder. Take a look at the report on AI-works reported by. Has the price bubble burst just months after its inflation? And can something created by a computer be truly called art?

Back to officialdom and the report by The New York Times on what the UK’s anti-money-laundering brigade is up to. New legislation, the newspaper reports, will oblige buyers and auctioneers to prove or ensure that works of art are not being bought (or sold) with the proceeds of illegal money-laundering or terrorism financing.

Watch the press for further details.