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Kandinsky sale halted after Poland claims artwork was stolen in 1984

A woman walks past the closed National Museum in Warsaw on March 26, 2021. (Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto/AP)

A German auction house halted its sale of an untitled 1928 painting by the Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky on Friday after Polish authorities vowed legal action, stating that the painting had been stolen from a Warsaw museum almost four decades ago.

Poland’s Culture Ministry said it would try to recover the Kandinsky from the Grisebach auction house because the work had been taken from the National Museum in Warsaw in 1984. Culture Minister Piotr Glinski accused Grisebach of trying to sell the artwork despite knowing that it had been stolen.

The abstract watercolor, in shades of pink, orange and yellow, is listed on the auction house’s website as having been sold for 387,500 euros, or about $408,000.

The sale is stirring sensitivities in Poland, partly because Warsaw has not yet recovered thousands of artworks looted by Nazi Germany during World War II, even though this particular work was not stolen by the Nazis.

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Marcin Krol, a Polish diplomat in Berlin, said the painting had ownership markings that indicate it had come from the National Museum in Warsaw. Poland has previously reported the painting as stolen to Interpol.

A Grisebach spokesperson told The Washington Post in a statement that the sale has been suspended and that it has contacted the potential buyers and sellers. The auction house said it “will now endeavor to bring about a supplementary judicial legal review by a court in order to obtain a binding clarification.”

Grisebach, which has a team of 40 experts who check for authenticity, said “it emerged that the painting had been in the possession of the consignors for several decades and had already been sold publicly at auction by Sotheby’s in London in the first half of the 1980s.”

It added that it “first became aware of a possible theft from a Polish museum shortly before the auction through a communication from the Polish Ministry of Culture.” However, Grisebach concluded at that time “that there were no legal objections to the auction of the watercolor.”

According to German law, claims to stolen artwork expire after 30 years.

The Polish government says the country lost more than 516,000 artworks during World War II, some to occupying Nazi authorities who openly took paintings and illustrations. One of those works, an 18th-century painting, was found in 2015 in Ohio and was later returned to Poland by the FBI.

Artwork stolen by the Nazis is still popping up around the world, including other pieces by Kandinsky. In September, a Dutch panel that oversees claims on stolen art during the Holocaust sided with the relatives of a murdered Jewish art collector who argued that Kandinsky’s “View of Murnau with Church” should be returned to them, JTA, a Jewish news agency, reported. The painting had been on display at a museum in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.