Lempertz to sell Max Pechstein self-portrait following settlement with Jewish doctor’s heirs

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The Cologne auction house Lempertz says it plans to auction a Max Pechstein self-portrait in the autumn after withdrawing the work from its 6 June evening sale, following newspaper reports that the painting was sold under duress by a Jewish doctor who died in Spain while fleeing Nazi Germany.

Self-Portrait With Pipe (1909) had received top billing at the auction with an estimated price of €1.5m to €2m. Described by Lempertz as a “key Expressionist work,” it depicts the painter in vibrant colours, a pipe in his mouth, holding a paintbrush and gazing directly at the viewer. Pechstein had recently achieved his first art market successes and later said of that time that “the ice was broken” and his art had been “set on its path.”

In its preview of the auction, Lempertz said the portrait had belonged to the same Rhineland private collection for about 90 years and was “fresh to the market.”

It didn’t mention that the work previously belonged to Walter Blank of Cologne, who sold it in 1936. Three years into Adolf Hitler’s rule, Jewish people in Germany faced increasing persecution, including professional bans that deprived them of income and forced them to sell possessions to pay their bills or fund their escape abroad. Blank’s two sons survived the concentration camps of Dachau and Auschwitz.

According to Lempertz, the painting was registered on lostart.de, a German database of Nazi-looted art, on the day of the planned sale, “even though a settlement had already been agreed with the heirs.” But one of two heirs was unhappy with the proposed deal, says Rainer Jacobs, the Dusseldorf-based lawyer representing Lempertz, and re-entered the work on the database. The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper reported on the portrait’s provenance on 5 June, the day before the sale.

“Confusing press reports gave rise to uncertainties,” Jan Bykowski, a spokesman for Lempertz, said in a statement. In its 12 June press release, the auction house said the lostart.de listing “needlessly unsettled some bidders who had signalled interest, including a museum.”

Jacobs says that since then both heirs have signed a new settlement, paving the way for the autumn auction.

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