Sigmar Polke Estate Ordered to Return Allegedly Stolen Painting

The artist left behind a disorganized body of work.

Sigmar Polke left behind a disorganized body of work. Photo: DPA via Süddeutsche Zeitung

On August 6, the High Regional Court of Cologne ruled that the Sigmar Polke Estate must return a painting to a collector. The ruling on this longstanding ownership dispute between a Cologne-based collector and the artist’s estate in Germany highlights the complexities faced by those who manage a body of work left behind by successful artists.

In the legal battle, the collector claimed he had bought the untitled painting known as Propellerfrau directly from Polke for €100,000, in 2007. However, in 2009, the artist reported the artwork as stolen and it was thus confiscated by prosecutors amid ongoing investigations. The case was further complicated by the artist’s death in 2010.

Although the collector’s story sounded dubious, the Cologne court held that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the work had indeed been stolen, according to Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger.


Installation view of the exhibition “Alibis: Sigmar Polke 1963-2010.”
© 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar.

The Express reported that a witness testified that, after having reported the painting stolen, the artist had confided that perhaps he did sell the painting after all. According to those close to the artist it was not uncommon for him to sell works out of his studio under market value.

Indeed, Polke was, by all accounts, not making things easy for archivists. He didn’t always sign his work; he often sold directly out of his studio, bypassing his dealers and tax authorities; and didn’t spend much time documenting his activities.


Sigmar Polke, Untitled (Rorschach) (Ohne Titel (Rorschach)) (circa 1999). Private Collection.
Photo: Alistair Overbruck © 2014 Estate of Sigmar Polke/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.

The latest case isn’t the first bit of confusion Polke’s Estate has had to deal with. In 2012 the estate accused a hotel owner of attempting to sell stolen goods when he put a series of Polke drawings on the market for €1.5 million. The hotelier claimed the drawings were part of a barter deal but was eventually convicted. The estate also launched complaints against Polke’s driver, who was given works by the artist before his death, and his housekeeper.

Related stories:

Sigmar Polke Painting Worth Millions Bought for $90 in Texas Thrift Store

Art Market Analysis: Sigmar Polke vs. Anselm Kiefer at Auction

Strictly Critical: MoMA’s Polke Retrospective

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