A Prized Van Gogh Was Sold Under Nazi Threat, Say the Heirs of a Jewish Banker Who Are Suing to Reclaim the Painting From a Museum

The heirs of a German Jewish businessman are suing a Japanese company over its prized Van Gogh painting, which they say was sold under threat of Nazi punishment nearly 90 years ago.

Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (1888) once belonged to the Berlin-based banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who hastily sold off his art collection in around 1934 in an effort to protect his other assets from the Nazis.  

After exchanging hands multiple times, the piece was purchased by the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company, in 1987, at Christie’s London for a then-record price of £25 million (roughly $40 million at the time). In 2002, Yasuda was incorporated into another company, Sompo Holdings, which owns Van Gogh’s canvas today.

But even though Yasuda acquired the painting legally, three of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s descendants—Julius H. Schoeps, Britt-Marie Enhoerning, and Florence Von Kesselstatt, who are all plaintiffs in the case—now argue that the company ignored the artwork’s historical context in purchasing it.

In their complaint, filed on December 13, 2022 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the heirs allege that Yasuda “recklessly—if not purposefully—ignored the provenance of Sunflowers that Christie’s published, which related that the famous Jewish Berlin banker and prominent Nazi victim Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy sold the painting in Berlin in 1934—at a time when notorious Nazi policies were targeting and dispossessing elite Jewish bankers and businessmen like Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and wreaking havoc upon Germany’s Jewish population.”

Appended to the complaint is a 2001 email sent from the Yasuda Museum of Art to the Van Gogh Museum as the two institutions were discussing a possible loan of Sunflowers for an upcoming exhibition. 

“We are deeply concerned about our [Van] Gogh and Gauguin provenance,” an administrator from the Japanese company’s museum wrote in the message. “We think our two works have nothing to do with Nazi-looted art, but we are not 100% sure.” 

The entrance to the Sompo Museum of Art in Tokyo. Courtesy of the Sompo Museum of Art.

The heirs are seeking to have the painting transferred to their possession, or if that’s not an option, they want $750 million in damages—an amount they say is equal to the artwork’s present-day market value.

Representatives from Sompo Holdings did not immediately respond to Midnight Publishing Group News’s request for comment, but a spokesperson for the company previously told Courthouse News that “Sompo categorically rejects any allegation of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers.

“It is a matter of public record that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company purchased the Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers work at public auction from Christie’s in London in 1987,” the company employee added, noting that, for the past 35 years, the painting has been on display at the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo.

According to Van Gogh specialist Martin Bailey, who publishes a weekly blog on the painter for the Art Newspaper, the case will likely come down to whether or not the court determines that Sunflowers was subject to a “forced sale” at a below-market price because of Nazi persecution.

The complaint explains that “purposeful and unrelenting Nazi policies to exclude Jews from the economy of Germany—and especially to eradicate Jewish banks—crippled Mendelssohn-Bartholdy financially and forced him in or around 1934 to consign Sunflowers to Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg.” 

The filing refers to the sale as a “paradigmatic forced transfer,” although there is no known record of how much Rosenberg paid in the exchange, which may make it difficult to prove that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was pressured to offload the painting at a low price. The heirs’ lawyers did not respond to an email from Midnight Publishing Group.

Sompo is expected to contest the complaint in court. Meanwhile, Sunflowers remains on display at the company’s Tokyo museum.


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In a Precedent-Setting Move, the Supreme Court Denies Jewish Heirs’ Attempt to Reclaim the $250 Million Guelph Treasure

The US Supreme Court has ruled against the heirs of a consortium of Jewish collectors who allege that their families were forced to sell the Guelph Treasure, a collection of Medieval devotional objects now valued at upwards of $250 million, to Nazis in the 1930s.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the collectors will not be able to secure the 42 silver artifacts’ return through the US legal system based on the case presented during oral arguments in December, reports Bloomberg Law. The decision could impact Holocaust-era restitution cases for decades to come.

Alan Philipp, Gerald Stiebel, and Jed Leiber, the heirs of the Guelph Treasure’s former owners, had sued Germany for restitution on the grounds that the transaction was among the many forced sales of artworks by Jews living under the Nazi regime. The treasure is held by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz, or SPK), which runs Berlin’s state museums, and is on view at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts.

In general, other countries cannot be sued in US court, according to the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The plaintiffs’ case rested on whether or not the sale of the Guelph Treasure could be considered an “expropriation exception,” where property was taken “in violation of international law.”

The arm reliquary of St. Sigismund from the Guelph Treasure. Photo ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum/Fotostudio Bartsch, Berlin.

The arm reliquary of St. Sigismund from the Guelph Treasure. Photo ©Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Kunstgewerbemuseum/Fotostudio Bartsch, Berlin.

But the court found that “the law of takings”—which has previously been used to secure the return of four Gustav Klimt canvases, including his famed Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907), to refugee Maria Altmann—did not apply here.

The heirs had argued that the treasure’s forced sale violated international law as an act of genocide. But the court found that the only international law covered by the exception is property law, and that the seizure of a property belonging to a country’s own citizens is a domestic matter, and therefore not under the jurisdiction of US law.

“We need not decide whether the sale of the consortium’s property was an act of genocide, because the expropriation exception is best read as referencing the international law of expropriation rather than of human rights,” chief justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. “We do not look to the law of genocide to determine if we have jurisdiction over the heirs’ common law property claims. We look to the law of property.”

During oral arguments, Nicolas O’Donnell, attorney for the heirs, argued that excluding acts of genocide from the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act would imply that “Congress intended to disadvantage the Nazi’s first victims, German Jews. This makes no sense.”

A Guelph Treasure Crucifix, currently on display at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, or Kunstgewerbemuseum. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

A Guelph Treasure Crucifix, currently on display at Berlin’s Museum of Decorative Arts, or Kunstgewerbemuseum. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Roberts countered: “The exception places repeated emphasis on property and property-related rights, while injuries and acts we might associate with genocide are notably lacking,” he wrote. “That would be remarkable if the provision were intended to provide relief for atrocities such as the Holocaust.”

The long-running battle over the treasure originated in Germany in 2008, but the heirs were unable to secure the treasure’s return. The German Advisory Commission on Nazi-looted art found in a non-binding 2014 ruling that the sale had not taken place under duress. The plaintiffs tried again in US court the following year. Despite a German motion to dismiss the case, a Washington, DC, district court agreed to hear the dispute—a decision upheld twice upon appeal before the case landed in the country’s highest court.

The case has now been sent back down to a district court to determine whether the dispute can be adjudicated on other grounds. One potential avenue, raised by the plaintiff during the oral arguments in December, is the question of whether the art dealers were considered German nationals at the time of the sale. If, as Jews, their German citizenship was considered invalid, then the law of domestic takings would no longer apply.

“My clients are obviously disappointed in the court’s ruling,” O’Donnell told Midnight Publishing Group News in an email. “We are considering our next steps for when the case returns to the district court.”

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