Heirs of painting’s previous owner also demand the artwork be returned
Japanese insurance company Sompo Holdings Inc. has said it will “vigorously defend” its ownership of Vincent Van Gogh’s painting ‘Sunflowers’ after heirs of its previous owner filed a lawsuit demanding its return.
The artwork, which is believed to be one of five original versions of the famous still life, was purchased in 1987 by Sompo’s predecessor Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance at a Christie’s auction in London for a then-record-breaking $40 million. For the past 35 years, the painting has been on display at the Sompo Museum of Art in Tokyo.
However, the family of the painting’s previous owner, Jewish banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1875-1935), now claims that Sompo acquired the artwork “in reckless disregard of its provenance.”
In 1934, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a prominent banker in Germany, was forced to sell his collection of paintings, which also included works by Pablo Picasso and Claude Monet. This was as Jews in Nazi Germany were being relieved of their assets and social status.
In the lawsuit, which was filed in the US federal court in Illinois last month, the banker’s heirs claim that Sompo has “commercially exploited” the painting and used it for “unjust enrichment” while knowing that it was a “Nazi-tainted artwork.”
The plaintiffs now demand Sompo return the painting or pay out its fair market value of $250 million. The family also requests an additional payment of $750 million in punitive damages and $690 million for “unjust enrichment.”
In a statement to AFP on Tuesday, Sompo Holdings said it had not yet received a copy of the complaint but said it “categorically rejects the complaint’s allegations of wrongdoing” and will “vigorously defend its ownership rights in ‘Sunflowers’.”
Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s family has also filed other lawsuits demanding the return of their ancestor’s collection. In 2020, a Picasso drawing was given back to the family by the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
January 17, 2023 at 10:35PM