The legal heirs of a German Jewish banker who was forced to sell his art collection to avoid persecution by the Nazis are suing a Japanese holding company to reclaim ownership of a painting by Vincent van Gogh.
Three heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, based in New York and Germany, filed a lawsuit on December 13 in an Illinois district court against Sompo Holdings, an insurance company based in Japan, to dispute its legal title to the painting Sunflowers (1888).
The claim states that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was a “casualty” of Nazi-era policies and economic sanctions that forced him to sell his collection, which included works by Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and August Renoir, among others, in the mid-1930s. He sold the van Gogh painting in 1934.
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s descendants allege that Sompo Holdings “ignored” and was “recklessly indifferent” to the painting’s provenance when it was sold in the late 1980s at public auction. Sho Tanka, a spokesperson for Sompo told Courthouse News that the company “categorically denies” the allegations made in the 98-page complaint.
Sompo’s former iteration, Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company, acquired the van Gogh from at a Christie’s auction in London for $39.9 million in 1987. The painting has been on loan to the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo since its purchase.
The sale occurred nearly a decade before the declaration of the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, the current standard around returning and researching artwork linked to Nazi activity, were officially adopted by leading auction houses.