Vincent van Gogh’s Sunflowers painting should be returned to the family of its former owner by Sompo Holdings Inc., the Japanese insurer that bought the famous artwork despite its tainted Nazi-era past, according to a lawsuit filed by the heirs.

They’re seeking more than $1 billion in damages for the oil drawing, which made its way to Japan about 35 years ago after it was sold at auction for almost $40 million — the highest price ever paid for a painting at the time.

Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a prominent banker in Germany, was forced to relinquish the artwork in 1934 as Jews in Germany were being stripped of their assets and social status. The painting, one of several iconic drawings of sunflowers by van Gogh, was bought in 1987 at a Christie’s auction in London by Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance, as Sompo was known at the time.

The purchase was seen as a symbol of excess in the 1980s when Japanese companies, flush with cash, went on a global shopping spree for trophy assets. That decade marked the peak of the country’s postwar economic boom and saw the sale of Manhattan’s Rockefeller Center to Mitsubishi Estate Co., Bridgestone Corp.’s takeover of Firestone Tire & Rubber and Sony Corp.’s acquisition of Columbia Pictures.

In the lawsuit filed in the US federal court in the Northern District of Illinois on Dec. 13, the heirs of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and his late wife Elsa said they are seeking the return of the bright yellow painting, $690 million in damages from Sompo for “unjust enrichment” and $750 million in punitive damages.

The insurer wrongfully benefited from Sunflowers “for many years while both knowing (either in fact or by reckless indifference) that the painting is a casualty of Nazi policies and falsely misrepresenting that it is not,” the heirs claimed in their filing.

The chances of a successful lawsuit, or likelihood of a settlement, weren’t clear given that the painting is in Japan and heirs sued in the US. The family over the years has settled other artwork restitution cases out of court that were brought against New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum and the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

Sompo refuted their assertions, saying that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance’s purchase of van Gogh’s painting was a “matter of public record” and that it was ready to defend itself in court.

“This painting was bought fairly at a Christie’s auction 35 years, displayed in Tokyo for 35 years and there is no doubt about the legitimacy of its ownership,” the insurer said in an emailed statement. “Sompo categorically rejects any allegation of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers.”

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy had consigned the painting to Parisian art dealer Paul Rosenberg in 1934. Around the same time, he officially transferred ownership of the painting to his wife Elsa. Such measures were common during the Nazi era when Jews sought to prevent the confiscation of their assets by the Nazis, steps that preceded the Holocaust.

Several artworks that were given up during the period were eventually returned to their rightful owners, backed by commitments from countries to support their restitution. The Jewish banker died in 1935.

Stuart Eizenstat, appointed in 2021 as a special adviser to the US State Department on Holocaust issues, has estimated some 600,000 paintings were looted by Nazis during the war. This has led to lawsuits around the globe concerning, ownership, restitution and return.

Sompo’s possession of Sunflowers is well known in Japan. A facsimile of the painting stands just outside of the museum in Shinjuku where it is displayed for the public to see. Admission currently costs ¥1,600 ($12), although the price depends on rotating exhibitions, while students through high school can enter for free. The insurer has integrated van Gogh’s painting with its own corporate image. One subsidiary is called Sompo Himawari Life Insurance Inc. — “himawari” is the Japanese word for “sunflower.”

“It would be very painful for Sompo to give up that painting,” said Tsukasa Koudera, a professor of western art at Osaka University who has published extensively on van Gogh. “It’s closely associated with its own corporate image, so this could be a tough situation.”

The painting hasn’t left Japan since 2002, when it was loaned to the Art Institute of Chicago for a van Gogh exhibition. A representative for the insurance company wrote to the exhibitors at the time with concerns that the oil drawing may encounter a “confiscation problem” because of its Nazi-tainted past, according to a copy of an email message included in the lawsuit.

It was only after the art institute obtained a letter from the State Department that authorities would not seize Sunflowers that Yasuda agreed to loan the painting. That certification was obtained under false pretenses, the heirs allege in their lawsuit.

“Even though Sompo Holdings long has known that Sunflowers is a casualty of Nazi policies — and that Mendelssohn-Bartholdy forfeited the painting as a consequence of Nazi wrongs,” the litigants said, “Sompo Holdings nonetheless has proactively conjoined its corporate identity with the painting.”

–With assistance from Taiga Uranaka.

Copyright 2023 Bloomberg.

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