The Heirs of a Jewish Banker are Taking a Japanese Company to Court over an Allegedly Nazi-Looted Van Gogh

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).

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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.


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