Ahen the version of Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”, which has been hanging in the Sompo Museum of Art in Tokyo for more than 35 years, was sold at Christie’s in London in 1987, it made history as the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction: 22 The picture brought in .5 million pounds, with a premium of 24.75 million. It came from a British private collection, the Chester Beatty collection, and passed to a Japanese insurance company, the Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company. Its successor company is Sompo Holding, which is behind the Tokyo Museum.
But that’s not the whole story. Because before the “Fifteen Sunflowers in a Vase” painted in 1888 reached London, they had been acquired in 1910 by the Berlin banker Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a great-great-grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. As a Jew, he saw himself forced during the Nazi dictatorship to liquidate his outstanding art collection with modernist masterpieces – including Picasso’s “Boy with the Pipe”, which was auctioned for a record price in 2010 – through sale and a pre-inheritance arrangement in favor of his second, non-Jewish wife . Mendelssohn Bartholdy died in 1935.
As “Courthouse News Service” reports, the community of heirs to the Berlin banker, whose spokesman is the Potsdam historian Julius H. Schoeps, is now suing Sompo Holding and demanding the return of the Van Gogh painting or damages of 750 million dollars. The work of art was sold under duress by her ancestor. When they bought it in 1987, the current owners did not intentionally exploit the picture’s problematic history of provenance, but ignored it. According to the media report, the Japanese holding denies the allegation and wants to defend its property rights.
The community of heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy has already had success with their lawsuits for restitution, but has also suffered legal defeats. In the spring, she secured the reassignment of ownership of Pablo Picasso’s Blue Period pastel Head of a Woman from the National Gallery of Art in Washington. In 2010, after a failed lawsuit, the heirs waived claims to another work by Picasso that had ended up in the foundation of the musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. For years, the community of heirs has also been demanding the restitution of Picasso’s portrait “Madame Soler”, which is owned by the Free State of Bavaria and is on display in the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich.
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