Jewish Heirs of Van Gogh Painting With Nazi Past Sue Current Japanese Owners for $750 Million

Jewish Heirs of Van Gogh Painting With Nazi Past Sue Current Japanese Owners for $750 Million

Shiryn Ghermezian

A close-up look at one of Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” paintings. Photo: Sailko via Wikimedia Commons

A Japanese insurance company that owns one of Vincent van Gogh’s famous paintings titled Sunflowers is being sued by the descendants of the artwork’s original Jewish owner who claim that the Nazis forced their ancestor to sell the painting in the 1930s, The Art Newspaper reported.

Three descendants of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy said in a lawsuit filed in Chicago in December that the Tokyo-based Sompo Holdings allegedly knew the artwork was a “casualty of Nazi policies” when a predecessor of the insurance company — Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company — bought the painting for $39.9 million at a Christie’s auction in London in 1987. The painting by the Dutch post-impressionist artist was later moved to the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo, where it is currently on permanent display.

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who was born in Berlin in 1875, was a banker who also had an impressive art collection that included pieces by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. The Nazis seized power in Germany in 1933 and it is believed that Sunflowers was sold in Berlin in 1934. The Jewish art collector, who also transferred many of his artworks overseas to keep them from being looted by the Nazis, died in May 1935 in Berlin at the age of 59 after reportedly being attacked by a Nazi thug.

One of the plaintiffs in the case, Julius H. Schoeps, told The Independent he believes his great-uncle sold the paintings to fund his family’s escape from Nazi Germany. In the 98-page complaint filed in court, the family said Mendelssohn-Bartholdy “never intended to transfer any of his paintings and that he was forced to transfer them only because of threats and economic pressures by the Nazi government.”

They claim Sompo Holdings was “recklessly indifferent” to the painting’s Nazi past, and that the company or its predecessor “ignored” the painting’s provenance.

The descendants of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy are demanding that Sunflowers either be returned to them or that Sompo pay $750 million in punitive damages, The Art Newspaper reported.

The insurance film denies claims that it knew the artwork was taken from Mendelssohn-Bartholdy by the Nazis and will fight the lawsuit.

“It is a matter of public record that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company bought the Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers work at public auction from Christie’s in London in 1987. For over 35 years, the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo, Japan, has proudly displayed Sunflowers,” Sompo Holdings said, adding that it “categorically rejects the complaint’s allegations of wrongdoing, the claims made, and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers.”

The still life painting is not the only artwork by van Gogh currently at the center of a lawsuit. The heirs of another Jewish collector is suing New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation in Athens for the return of van Gogh’s La cueillette des olives (Olive Picking), which they claim was looted by the Nazis. The Detroit Institute of Arts is also being sued regarding a painting by van Gogh titled Liseuse De Romans. 

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