The descendants of a German Jewish banker who contend that he was forced to sell off his art collection in the mid-1930s to avoid being harassed by Nazis are suing a Japanese insurance company that owns a van Gogh he offloaded as the Third Reich ascended to power. Julius H. Schoeps, Britt-Marie Enhoerning, and Florence Von Kesselstatt, the legal heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, on December 13 filed suit in an Illinois district court against Sompo Holdings, seeking the return of Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 Sunflowers or $750 million in punitive damages.
Following the 1934 sale of the painting by Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the work was acquired by Yasuda Fire & Marine, as Sompo was then known, in 1987 for $39.9 million, inclusive of fees—at that time, the highest amount paid for an artwork at auction. Shortly thereafter, the painting went on display at the Sompo Museum of Art, where it has since remained. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s heirs, who variously reside in Berlin and New York, maintain that the banker “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,” which at the time was “targeting and dispossessing” Jewish businesspeople in Germany. Though they agree that Sompo did not “purposefully” capitalize on the circumstances surrounding the painting’s original sale—which took place nine years before the coming into force of the 1998 Washington Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art governing auction houses—they contend that the insurer was aware that it was a “casualty of Nazi policies” when they bought it.
Speaking with Courthouse News, Sompo spokesperson Sho Tanka refuted the accusations laid out in the ninety-eight-page complaint, noting that “Sompo categorically rejects any allegation of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers.”
The suit arrived just days before descendants of Hedwig Stern filed suit in a San Francisco court alleging that the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was similarly aware of the tainted provenance of an unnamed van Gogh painting that the institution purchased from Vincent Astor in 1956 and sold to Greek shipping tycoon Basil Goulandris in 1972. The heirs contend that the work was stolen from their Jewish ancestor by the Nazis after she fled Munich and the grip of the Third Reich.