A rare masterpiece by the Italian Renaissance painter Paolo Uccello, which was sold by its owners under duress during World War II, is being auctioned at a Sotheby’s London evening sale titled “Rembrandt to Richter” on July 28. The Guardian first reported news of the work’s history on Sunday, and said that the work is headed to sale at Sotheby’s following a settlement agreement between the painting’s most recent owners and the heirs to the collectors that previously held it.
The original owners of the 15th-century painting, titled Battle on the Banks of a River, were German heirs of the Dresdner Bank, Friedrich “Fritz” Gutmann and his wife Louise, both of whom were killed in concentration camps in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz 1944. Simon Goodman, the Gutmanns’ grandson, told the Guardian that the painting was the first artwork his grandfather ever acquired. Goodman said it was sold by Hitler’s art dealer, Julius Böhler, in a forced liquidation of his relative’s assets in February 1942. Nazi agents placed the Gutmanns on house arrest and stripped the family of its remaining modern art and old masters holdings, including works by Degas, Renoir, Bosch, and Botticelli, at their estate in Bosbeek.
Years after the wartime sale, in 1957, Milanese dealer Arturo Basi sold the work to an Italian family that has held the painting for decades. Sotheby’s then liaised between that family and the Gutmanns’ heirs, resulting in a settlement agreement between them that allowed the sale to take place on Tuesday.
Experts at Sotheby’s said that the painting is an example of Uccello’s signature style. “His great interest in the use and development of linear perspective exemplifies the spirit of enquiry that characterizes the ‘rebirth’ of painting in Tuscany in the 15th Century,” Alexander Bell, co-chairman of Sotheby’s Old Master paintings department, said in a statement to Art Market Monitor. “This current work, Battle on the Banks of a River, originally formed part of a cassone—a magnificently decorated marriage chest that would likely have been given as a dowry.” Bell noted it is the only example by the artist of its kind to come to market. The work carries an estimated value of £600,000–£800,000 ($772,500–$1.03 million).
The Uccello work is listed in the German Lost Art Foundation registry. Measuring 20 inches tall by 67 inches wide, the tempera and gold painting features two warring armies separated by a river in a pre-battle scene. The Florentine panel was last exhibited publicly at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum in 1934 while in Gutmann’s collection, and prior to his purchase of the work in 1921, it was last auctioned at the Hôtel Drouot house in Paris in March 1918 from the collection of Gauthier Villiers.
Goodman, the author of the 2015 book The Orpheus Clock, has been chronicling his quest to recover his family’s stolen art and has led a number of high-profile recoveries from his grandparent’s collection over the past three decades. In 1998, a settlement between the Gutmann heirs and the Art Institute of Chicago led to restored ownership of Edgar Degas’s Paysage Avec Fumée de Cheminées (Landscape With Smokestacks), which currently resides in the museum’s permanent collection. In 2010, the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers returned a rare 16th-century portrait by German painter Hans Baldung Grien to the Gutmann heirs, who then sold it at Christie’s in 2011 for $218,500. Another work restituted to the Gutmman heirs, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Portrait of John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, sold at Christie’s in an Old Masters auction in April 2018 for $7.7 million, at more than 7 times its pre-sale low estimate of $1 million. The sale proceeds for the Uccello painting will be distributed among the Gutmann heirs and the consigning Italian family, Goodman told the Guardian.