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Reporter's Notebook

The day I got to see Van Gogh’s Nazi-seized ‘Wheatstacks,’ from both sides

A work of great art has been on public display in London this week for the first time since 1905. On Thursday, I inspected it up close — front and rear…

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

This image, provided by Christie's, shows Vincent van Gogh's 1888 work 'Wheatstacks,' sold as part of sale of  'The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism,' in New York, November 11, 2021. The watercolor, seized by the Nazis during World War II, sold to an undisclosed buyer of $35.9 million (Christie's)
This image, provided by Christie's, shows Vincent van Gogh's 1888 work 'Wheatstacks,' sold as part of sale of 'The Cox Collection: The Story of Impressionism,' in New York, November 11, 2021. The watercolor, seized by the Nazis during World War II, sold to an undisclosed buyer of $35.9 million (Christie's)

In the course of Friday, a wonderful painting by Vincent van Gogh, Meules de Blé (Wheatstacks), is being packed up and flown from London to New York, where it will be auctioned on November 11 at Christie’s.

For a few brief moments on Thursday, however, I had it in my personal control. Kind of.

Wheatstacks hit the headlines last week when it reappeared for the first time in living memory. It had not been on public display for 116 years and had never previously even been reproduced in color.

Painted in Arles in June 1888, the blazing watercolor is a study that the artist days later turned into the oil painting “Wheatstacks in Provence,” which hangs in the Kröller-Müller Museum, in Otterlo, Holland.

According to Martin Bailey, writing last week in The Art Newspaper, the watercolor was bought in 1913 by a Berlin Jewish industrialist and collector, Max Meirowsky, sent to a Paris-based dealer just before World War II when Meirowsky fled the Nazis to Holland, and purchased by Miriam Caroline Alexandrine de Rothschild, daughter of the great Zionist benefactor, Baron Edmond James de Rothschild. When she in turn fled, to Switzerland, the painting was seized by the Nazis, and it subsequently disappeared, despite her best efforts to recover it after the war.

In the late 1970s, Wheatstacks reemerged at the Wildenstein Gallery in New York, writes Bailey, and was sold to Texas oilman Edwin Lochridge Cox, who hung it in his Dallas mansion and apparently told very few people about it.

Miriam Caroline Alexandrine de Rothschild (The Rothschild Archive)

When Cox died last year, and his collection was being prepared for sale, what must have been extremely sensitive negotiations were conducted, involving the heirs of Meirowsky and de Rothschild, and the result was an agreement that now sees the work put up for auction, with the proceeds presumably split on an agreed basis. “The settlement agreement resolves the dispute over ownership of the work,” Christie’s states in its auction catalog, “and title will pass to the successful bidder.”

For five days from October 17-21, however, Wheatstacks entered the public domain — displayed in a small room at Christie’s just off Picadilly in central London — its first showing since a Van Gogh retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 1905.

Unlike in some museums, here at Christie’s, astonishing works of art are displayed with truly intimate access. Wheatstacks — its color crisp and bright, as though it were painted if not yesterday, then fairly recently, and certainly not more than 130 years ago — shared a small room with two other Van Goghs, an ethereal small Degas and several other wondrous works, all from the Cox Collection, also bound for auction. There were very few visitors and you could get up as close as you wanted to the works, and stay with them for as long as you liked, albeit under the slightly wary eye of a Christie’s staffer.

The young woman on duty when we visit kindly lends us her iPad so we can read up on the painting’s provenance as we absorb its luminous power. She also vouchsafes that today is her first day at the job, when we ask her questions she understandably cannot answer about how many people have been descending on the auction house to enjoy the rare privilege of sharing breathing space with this work of genius.

Wheatstacks is expected to fetch some $20-$30 million, by far the most ever paid for a Van Gogh painting on paper. Understandably so. “Everything is breathtaking: the iconic subject, the perfect condition of the gouache, the intensity of the ink in the trademark cross-hatchings and twirls defining the landscape, the ambitious scale of the composition,” according to Giovanna Bertazzoni, Christie’s vice chair of 20th- and 21st-century art.

Wheatstacks and its compatriots in the Cox Collection were far from the only pieces of Great Art on display to anyone who cared to pop into the London auction house this week. When we arrived — in the midst of an auction, as it happened, just as a reclining Henry Moore sculpture was being offered for sale — we found a Monet, a Hopper and a Hockney faced off in close proximity in the room next door to Vincent’s, competing in their wildly differing styles for our attention.

In a third room, incidentally, three electric guitars from the collection of Nile Rodgers were also on display, before they are sold off in aid of a charity he supports. Visitors like us were kept at some distance, by a guard ribbon, from the irrepressible Mr. Rodgers’ guitars. But as with Wheatstacks, we could get as near as we wished to the Monet, the Hopper and the Hockney.

Indeed, as we took in these contrastingly great paintings, a Christie’s expert and a visiting colleague — perhaps acting on behalf of a potential buyer — were inspecting the Monet at the closest possible distance. They were enthusing over the brushstrokes and the color choices with fairly extravagant hand movements that took them to within millimeters of the canvas itself — and this Monet, unlike Wheatstacks next door, was not behind glass but unprotected.

I found my mind wandering to a scene in a Rowan Atkinson film, “Bean: The Ultimate Disaster Movie,” that I saw with my kids one evening more than 20 years ago, in which the hapless protagonist sneezes on Whistler’s Mother, with dire and hilarious fictional consequences — and did my best to quickly banish that train of thought.

Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1, better known as Whistler’s Mother (James McNeill Whistler / public domain)

Now, though, the Christie’s expert and his visiting friend were carefully lifting the Monet off the wall, to inspect the verso of the canvas, and again I started worrying about its vulnerability, willing them, quite unnecessarily, to be careful; these were experts, they knew what they were doing, they knew what they were looking for on Monet’s rear, what indications of its history and well-being they were seeking, and they smoothly and efficiently restored the work to its place once they were done.

But now my curiosity was piqued. Two other employees were walking by with another painting from the Cox Collection, Gustave Caillebotte’s Young Man at His Window (1875), carrying the large canvas into the same room where Wheatstacks was on display. And once they had maneuvered this new arrival into its place, I politely asked them if they might, just for a moment, take Wheatstacks off the wall so that I could inspect the back of the masterwork.

I don’t know what I was expecting to see — notations detailing Wheatstacks’ provenance, perhaps; maybe even a Third Reich stamp of some kind attesting to its misappropriation all those decades ago

To my considerable astonishment, they cheerfully agreed to do so.

The verso of Van Gogh’s Wheatstacks, as exhibited at Christie’s London, October 21, 2021 (LH / ToI)

I don’t know what I was expecting to see — notations detailing Wheatstacks’ provenance, perhaps; maybe even a Third Reich stamp of some kind attesting to its misappropriation all those decades ago. But as my helpful accomplices held up the painting, back to front, displayed for my personal leisurely contemplation, there was nothing of the kind. The verso of Wheatstacks, I am one of very few people who can reliably assure you first-hand, is disappointingly blank, with only a label of modern notations in the top right corner of the frame, and the printed alert that this is a “LOANER FRAME.” No journalistic scoop here.

Love Is in the Bin by Banksy (photograph by Sotheby’s)

Now we could all attest that the front is definitely better, my new Christie’s friends carefully turned Wheatstacks back around and restored it, in all its blazing yellow glory, to its temporary London wall space for its final few hours before the journey to New York, auction, and, who knows, disappearance back again into private ownership.

Those few seconds, I quickly realized, are the closest I will ever come to controlling a work of Great Art. At $20 million or more, it’s just a little above my budget.

Still, that valuation strikes me as a bit of a steal, particularly given that Banksy’s part-shredded “Girl With Balloon,” now renamed “Love Is in the Bin,” went for over $25 million at a Sotheby’s auction in London just last week.

As my new Christie’s friends remarked as they returned it expertly to the wall, when you buy Van Gogh’s “Wheatstacks,” you’ll get it intact, and probably even in the original frame.

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