A painting of Gerhard Richter when he was just 4 months old and perched on the knees of his 14-year-old aunt looks, at first glance, like an innocent work taken from a family photo album. But the image, on the cover of a new biography, "Gerhard Richter: A Family Drama," written by Jürgen Schreiber and published in Germany, is actually the portrait of a family tragedy that is explored in the book and is of particular importance to the artist's personal history and the development of his work.
Now the 1965 painting, "Aunt Marianne," one of Mr. Richter's signature photorealist images, is to be auctioned by Sotheby's in London on June 21. It is expected to bring in $2.7 million to $3.6 million.
"Aunt Marianne" is one of a few works based on family photographs. This one, taken from a 1932 snapshot, is both a personal reminiscence and a nod to the lasting effects of Nazi Germany. Mr. Richter was too young to fight in World War II but experienced its horrors; two of his uncles were killed during the war.
Five years after Marianne posed for the photograph, she was interned and sterilized, on suspicion of being schizophrenic, by the same doctor who had delivered Mr. Richter. She died of starvation in 1945 at the mental hospital where she was imprisoned, and was buried in a common grave along with thousands of victims of war and euthanasia.
Years later it was discovered that Heinrich Eufinger, the father of Mr. Richter's first wife, had been personally responsible for overseeing the mass sterilization of women at a neighboring hospital, where Marianne had been treated.
"It's from a German collector who bought it in the 1960's," said Cheyenne Westphal, chairman of contemporary art for Sotheby's in Europe. Experts familiar with Mr. Richter's work said the seller was the Gross family from Stuttgart.