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Heirs to Jewish banker’s estate sue owner of painting sold amid Nazis’ rise

A Tokyo-based insurance company is alleged to have recklessly or purposefully ignored the history of the painting it has owned since 1987.

(CN) — Heirs and descendants of a German Jewish banker who sold his extensive art collection in the mid-1930s in the face of the growing Nazi threat filed suit in federal court in Chicago to reclaim possession of one such painting and collect damages from the current owner.

The plaintiffs — Julius H. Schoeps, Britt-Marie Enhoerning, and Florence Von Kesselstatt — claim in a 98-page complaint filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois Tuesday that the current owner, Sompo Holdings Inc., a Japan-based insurance holding company knew the painting was a “casualty of Nazi policies” or was “recklessly indifferent” to the painting’s history.

Sho Tanaka, of Sompo Holdings’ corporate communications department, denied the plaintiffs’ allegations in a statement to Courthouse News Service.

“Sompo categorically rejects any allegation of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in ‘Sunflowers,’ he said.

“It is a matter of public record that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company [Sompo’s predecessor] purchased the Vincent van Gogh ‘Sunflowers’ work at public auction from Christie’s in London in 1987. For over 35 years, the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo, Japan has proudly displayed ‘Sunflowers.’”

The painting, “Sunflowers” by Vincent van Gogh, was sold along with other paintings from the collection of Jewish banker Paul von Mendelsohn-Bartholdy in 1934 as Mendelsohn-Bartholdy liquidated his art collection to protect the remainder of his assets from the growing Nazi threat to Jewish business leaders. Mendelsohn-Bartholdy died in 1935.

In 1987, “Sunflowers” was purchased by Sompo Holdings’ predecessor, Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Co. for nearly $40 million. It is now on display in Sompo Holdings’ art museum in Tokyo near the company’s office.

In their complaint, Mendelsohn-Bartholdy’s heirs assert that Sompo Holdings’ predecessor “recklessly — if not purposefully — ignored the provenance of Sunflowers that [art dealer] 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.”

The plaintiffs, descendants and heirs to Mendelsohn-Bartholdy’s estate, variously reside in Germany and New York state. The complaint was filed in Chicago because of Tokyo-based Sompo Holdings’ business dealings in the state of Illinois. The complaint was filed by Chicago-based K&L Gates and by Washington, D.C.-based Byrne, Goldenberg & Hamilton.

The plaintiffs ask the court for, among other things, an order declaring them to be the rightful owners of the van Gogh painting and return of the painting to them. If the painting cannot be returned to them, the plaintiffs ask that a trust be created with funds equal to the current market value of the painting, and they seek punitive damages of not less than $750 million.

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