Japanese Firm Defends Owning Van Gogh's Sunflowers Amid Lawsuit

Sompo Holdings has defended its ownership of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, after the family of its former owner filed a US lawsuit demanding the painting's return and the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.

Japanese Firm Defends Owning Van Gogh's Sunflowers Amid Lawsuit
Image credit: aljazeera

Facts

  • Sompo Holdings has defended its ownership of Van Gogh's Sunflowers, after the family of its former owner filed a US lawsuit demanding the painting's return and the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in damages.
  • Sompo Holdings acquired the painting when they merged with competitor Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance, who bought the painting in 1987 for $40M USD. However, the Mendelssohn-Bardtholdy family — who are of Jewish descent — claim that the painting was forcibly sold in Nazi Germany in 1934.
  • It is alleged that the family are seeking $690M USD in damages for unjust enrichment and $750M USD in punitive damages. Sompo have stated that there is "no doubt" over the legitimacy of the ownership, after it was bought "fairly" at Christie's in London.
  • The lawsuit claims that the company has "reaped billions of dollars" unjustly via a "sophisticated branding strategy," only made possible through possession of the painting. As a result of a similar lawsuit, the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC returned a Picasso drawing to the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family in 2020.
  • The painting, one of five originals, has been on display in Tokyo for 35 years. Sompo has claimed that the company intends to "vigorously defend" their ownership rights to the piece.

Sources: Al Jazeera, JC, FI, Japan Times, and Bilyonaryo.

Narratives

  • Narrative A, as provided by Art Newspaper. While the Mendelssohn-Batholdy family does seem to have suffered financially under Hitler, they do not appear to have fled Germany. This, in combination with an absence of records documenting how much was paid by the family to obtain the work, means this will be a difficult case to win.
  • Narrative B, as provided by Jewish News. This is the latest in a variety of ongoing attempts by the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's heirs to retrieve the family collection. Members of the family were forced into exile, committed suicide or went into hiding as a result of Nazi oppression, and the current owners hid the concerning provenance that follows the painting. Three previous successes for the family suggest that a positive result may be possible.