The Guardian 22 April 2006
It was one of those moments that art connoisseurs dream about. In December, two experts from Christie's were asked to do a routine valuation at a home in France. They had been sent a photograph of a painting, and assumed it was a copy of a lost masterpiece by Egon Schiele.
But when they walked into the apartment, "we took one look at the picture and immediately turned to each other, incredulous", said Christie's expert Thomas Seydoux. "There was no doubt that we were standing in front of the Schiele masterpiece. It was an intense experience."
The painting is to be auctioned in London in June, with a conservative estimate of £4m-£6m. But all eyes will be on whether it could top the Schiele record, set in 2003 at £12.3m by a landscape that had been estimated at £5m-£7m.
The work - known as Wilted Sunflowers - is an important work by Schiele, part of a group he painted in the village of Krumau in 1914. It disappeared without trace, and was missing for 68 years. "Whereabouts unknown", the scholarly books simply stated.
About a metre tall, it depicts a clump of drooping sunflowers set against a landscape over which hovers a dour sun, half veiled by cloud. It refers to Van Gogh's sunflower paintings, but gives the subject a sense of melancholia, decay and deathliness.
The painting had been bought shortly after the first world war by Karl Grünwald, a Jewish art, textiles and antiques dealer based in Vienna. He had served as Schiele's superior officer during the first world war, and had helped get the man he recognised as a genius diverted from the front line and appointed a war artist. Friends
The men became friends. Grünwald modelled for the artist, and the men's families holidayed together in the summer before Schiele succumbed to influenza in 1918.
In 1938, Grünwald and his family fled Austria in the wake of the anschluss, and reached Paris. Grünwald tried to safeguard his art collection, but it was confiscated by the Nazis in Strasbourg, where it had been put in storage.
In 1942 it was auctioned off "from the back of a truck to raise cash", according to Christie's European president, Jussi Pylkkänen. There was no record of what had become of them.
Grünwald lost his wife and one of his four children in a concentration camp during the war. He spent the rest of his life trying to get his collection back. After his death aged 80 in 1964, his surviving children, especially his son Frédéric, took up the search.
They found one key piece: the Schiele portrait of their father, which was successfully restored to them.
They also identified a Klimt called Die Erfüllung, which had ended up in a Strasbourg museum. The fight to get it back turned into an epic struggle, culminating in the family suing the city of Strasbourg, a case that took 13 years to resolve. It was formally restituted, at long last, in 2000.
Frédéric died in 2004, but, according to his daughter Cory Pollack, "my father talked about Wilted Sunflowers as he was dying", urging the surviving family to continue the hunt. The work was the jewel of the collection, and, according to Ms Pollack: "The struggle to reclaim our stolen art has become part of our family legacy."
It is ironic, then, that Wilted Sunflowers turned up out of the blue, not as a result of the Grünwald family's efforts to run it to ground. The anonymous Frenchman who had called in the Christie's experts, in all innocence of its troubled provenance, was told of the painting's history.
He recognised that the painting should be restored to the Grünwald family and Karl's descendants, now scattered between France and the US, were traced by Christie's at the Frenchman's request.
"It was a fantastically noble situation," said Mr Pylkkänen. And an unusual one. Had the painting stayed in Austria, where it is likely to have ended up in a museum, chances are that restitution would have proved much more arduous. The descendants of Alma Mahler (composer Gustav Mahler's wife) have, for instance, been trying since 1953 to regain the Munch she was forced to leave behind as she escaped Vienna in 1938. That painting still hangs in the Austrian Gallery in Vienna. Emotion
Last month Ms Pollack flew to London to see for the first time the painting that had become her family's obsession. "I was very emotional. Overwhelmed with joy, though emotion makes you cry too," she said.
"We have a feeling of peace and resolution. It's wonderful thing, part of the healing process. It has been brought full circle and resolved in an amicable way."
Asked whether the family had considered holding on to the painting rather than immediately putting it up for auction, she said: "Truthfully, we felt it would be more appropriate for it to be somewhere where many people could see it. And it would make me too nervous to have it. How could you keep something like that at home? It's not about money - the fact is it has been discovered. It is part of our family history."
Several members of the family gathered in London yesterday, some of whom had seen the work for the first time on Thursday. Ms Pollack declined to say how the family intended to split the proceeds of the sale between them. "It will be done in the right way," she said.
Mr Pylkkänen said: "We are not overstating this when we say it is a masterpiece. It would grace any national gallery, and we hope and assume that major institutions will bid for this." http://arts.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,1758973,00.html