The most imposing modern works at the May 3 and 4 sales feel particularly fresh because none has ever been publicly available. Wassily Kandinsky’s Two Riders and Reclining Figure (1909–10), at Sotheby’s, was unknown to scholars until last year. Painted on the reverse side of the fiberboard backing of another painting, the proto-abstract work was (historians think) peeled away from its mate by Kandinsky’s artist friend Alexej von Jawlensky, who then gave it to his secretary; it’s been in her family ever since. Although another high-priced Kandinsky failed to sell at Sotheby’s last season, this painting’s saturated colors and mystique may help it reach $15 million to $25 million. Also at Sotheby’s is Max Beckmann’s 1936 Self-Portrait With Crystal Ball, painted soon after his art was declared degenerate by the Nazis. His vision of himself in green, on the cusp of dark and light, displays furrowed brows and bleary eyes. Owned by one German family since 1938, the pristine painting may compel $10 million to $15 million.
At Christie’s, a newly rediscovered Brancusi Bird in Space (1923; pictured) is a relative bargain, at $8 million to $12 million. Originally bought by a Parisian socialite, the tall marble sculpture somehow eluded notice until its second owner’s heirs decided to sell. Thought to be the first in this elegant landmark series, this bird puffs its chest, unlike later, more streamlined versions.