The descendants of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a German Jewish banker in Berlin who liquidated his large art collection to avoid Nazi retaliation, filed a lawsuit on 13 December against the present owner of a famous Vincent van Gogh painting once in his possession. The plaintiffs claim that Sompo Holdings, a Japan-based insurance holding company, was fully aware that the painting, Sunflowers (1888), was a “casualty of Nazi policies” and moved forward with its acquisition despite the historical context of its prior sale.
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s descendants—Julius H. Schoeps, Britt-Marie Enhoerning and Florence Von Kesselstatt—allege that Sompo Holdings was “recklessly indifferent” to the painting’s past, a claim Sho Tanka, a spokesperson for Sompo, disputed in comments to Courthouse News.
“Sompo categorically rejects any allegation of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers,” Tanka said, adding that Sompo’s predecessor, Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company, procured the Van Gogh from a public auction at Christie’s London in 1987. “For over 35 years, the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo, Japan has proudly displayed Sunflowers.”
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy originally sold Sunflowers and other pieces from his collection in 1934, fearing that Nazi encroachment on Jewish business leaders would make him a target. He died the following year. His heirs’ 98-page complaint states that he “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”.
Yasuda Fire & Marine purchased the painting for $39.9m (including fees) in 1987—setting a new record at the time for the most expensive artwork sold at auction—and eventually placed it on permanent display in Sompo’s Tokyo museum.
While the heirs acknowledge that Sompo Holdings did not “purposefully” exploit the circumstances of the painting’s sale in 1934, they assert that Sunflowers‘s painful provenance was “ignored”.
The plaintiffs reside in Germany and New York state, but filed their lawsuit in federal court in Chicago due to Sompo’s business dealings there. They are asking the court for return of the painting or, barring that, $750m in punitive damages.