Four works which once hung in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris—including a rare still-life by Paul Gauguin—will go under the hammer in Sotheby’s modern art evening auction in New York next month. The works were returned earlier this year to the descendants of the renowned French art dealer Ambroise Vollard following a lengthy legal battle.
Ahead of the sale on 16 May, the works went on show today at the auction house’s Paris headquarters. Gauguin’s painting, entitled Nature morte avec pivoines de Chine et mandoline (still-life with Chinese peonies and mandolin), carries an estimate of $10m to $15m. Sotheby’s says that the work was painted in 1885 “at the moment when the artist began to pursue his art full-time, moving away from the naturalism of the Impressionist movement and beginning to experiment with vivid colour”.
The other consigned pieces are Paysage de bord de mer, a seascape by Pierre-August Renoir estimated at $1m to $1.5m, a red chalk drawing by Renoir titled The Judgement of Paris from 1908, estimated at $300,000 to $500,000, and a watercolour and pencil work on paper by Paul Cézanne entitled Sous-Bois (around 1882-84), estimated at $250,000 to $350,000.
Following a decade of legal proceedings, a Paris administrative court ordered the Musée d’Orsay in February to restitute the four works, which were stolen during the Second World War and sold to German museums, dealers or Nazi officers.
In May 2022, another French court confirmed that these works were the property of Vollard at the time of his sudden death in 1939, before being stolen by individuals in charge of his succession who then sold them. This judgment was upheld by France’s highest court last November.
Vollard’s descendants are represented by the lawyer François Honnorat who previously told The Art Newspaper that he “regrets that the [restitution] process took ten years”, during which two of the heirs died.
“Vollard was a major supporter and champion of the artists of his time, including Gauguin, Renoir and Cézanne. Each of these works speak to his importance as a central figure who helped shape modern art and whose legacy is still felt today,” says Allegra Bettini, Sotheby’s head of the modern evening auction in New York, in a statement.
Sotheby’s previously auctioned 140 works from the Vollard collection in 2010 for a total of €23m. The pieces had been discovered in 1979 in a bank vault of Société Générale in Paris, prompting a decade-long legal dispute over the trove’s ownership.
Sotheby’s is ramping up its efforts to secure restituted items for sale. In March, a recently restituted painting from early in Wassily Kandinsky’s career, Murnau mit Kirche II (1910) sold for £37m (with fees) at Sotheby’s London. The proceeds of the sale were split between 13 heirs of the painting’s former Jewish owners, Johanna Margarete and Siegbert Stern, a celebrated German Jewish couple at the heart of Berlin’s glittering cultural life in the 1920s.