Bitter legal battle between Japanese and Americans over Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers”

Tokyo. Captivated at the time by Japan and its engravings, Van Gogh could only imagine, in life, one of his most famous “Sunflowers” –from a series of seven paintings painted in 1888 and 1889– that would become, more than one hundred and thirty years later of his death, the subject of a passionate and tumultuous affair that would occupy the American and Japanese courts.

The owner of the masterpiece in question, the Sompo HoldingsJapanese insurance giant (9,000 employees and €92 billion in assets worldwide), its subsidiaries and its museum, the Sompo Art Museuminstalled in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo where the canvas (the largest in the series, painted in 1888) is exhibited under strict security along with 630 other works, is being sued today in an Illinois federal court by the three heirs of the former owner of the painting: Julius H. Schoeps, a well-known German historian specializing in the Holocaust; Britt-Marie Enhoerning and Florence Von Kesselstatt, defended by the powerful American firm K&L Gates.

Persecuted by the Nazis and forced to sell

To understand the motivations of the plaintiffs, who demand, in addition to the return of the work, 750 million US dollars (almost 100 billion yen) in damages, we must go back in history. His ancestor, the former owner of the canvas, was Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1875-1935), a Jewish banker from Berlin, then head of one of the five largest German banks, known to have been harassed and persecuted by the nazis. who saw in him a collector of works of modern art and “degenerate”. Furthermore, in 1934, the Nazis forced Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to part with his Van Gogh: sell it by force at a depreciated price. However, fifty-three years later, it is this same painting, a centerpiece of world art, that one of the predecessors of Sompo Holdings, the company Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Co., acquired at auction at Christie’s in London, in 1987, in the midst of the Japanese financial bubble, for an amount of 39.9 million dollars. Both a sensation and a record: it was the most expensive piece of art ever acquired at the time. “I then began my investigation into the fate of Jewish-held art collections in Germany during the Nazi dictatorship, and was surprised that the British auction house gave no explanation as to the rather problematic provenance of this canvas. testifies today Clémens Toussaint, a German of French origin, often presented as the most famous private art detective in the world. And the most terrifying! Only in Japan did he get the reinstatement of an Edgar Degas and a Paul Klee.

The insurer “knew”

Bad faith or not, at the time, before the auction and the transaction, it seems that a diligent and perfect verification of the work has not been carried out -authenticity documents, reports from the curators on its condition and its history- according to the rules of art. However, with one important caveat: was the Yasuda insurance company aware, when it acquired the work, of the work’s turbulent fate under the Nazi regime? In 2000, in fact, the Yasuda group declared itself “deeply concerned” by the idea that Van Gogh’s work acquired thirteen years earlier in London could have been a victim of Nazi policy. According to the early 2023 complaint document, a 142-page report from a US federal institution that The Journal of the Arts obtained – it could even be that the Japanese insurer, “who knew”, “with full knowledge of the facts and the cause”, has sinned for “reckless indifference”. In summary: Yasuda knew that he had “mistakenly” acquired a historically contaminated work, but he would have decided to go ahead and make the acquisition profitable from him. For thirty-five years, crowds have flocked to Tokyo’s Sompo Museum to marvel at the sunflowers. The value of the work has also skyrocketed. Japan has not ratified the 1998 Washington Declaration (on Nazi looted property) nor the subsequent 2009 Terezín Declaration.

“The heirs of the looted Berlin banker ask for the physical restitution of the work. This complaint is neither frivolous nor unreasonable, observes Clémens Toussaint. Remember that after 1945, the world, and in particular the art world, spoke very little about the looting that the Nazi regime carried out on German Jewish collectors, who were also exterminated because it was necessary to get rid of these shameful witnesses. Sompo Holdings, which for its part intends to defend and promote high ethical standards, could be forced to negotiate a reasonable solution to the dispute and thus repair what must be classified, in view of the proven facts, as a historical defect. » The legal battle promises to be bitter, long and complex. The Japanese insurer has not yet received the complaint from the United States, but it has already surrounded itself with an army of lawyers. And she claims that she will defend “strongly assert their ownership rights in the painting”.

A solar and mysterious work that fascinates the Japanese

Shortly after March 30, 1987, the date of the acquisition by his group of one of the two most emblematic canvases in the “Sunflowers” series (the only ones measuring 100.5 x 76.6 cm) -the other is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in the United States – a spokesman for the Yasuda insurance company told the press that “Every Japanese and even every schoolboy, every schoolboy and every Japanese high school student knows this painting which has no other equivalent among the works of Van Gogh and the Impressionists.” Since then, the work rests on the 42nd floor of the Sompo Holdings headquarters and continues to fascinate the Archipelago. The Japanese appreciate this false still life, solar and mysterious: in their eyes, each of these painted sunflowers, with a brown heart, rapeseed yellow petals and bronze tones, lives, like “a garden sun”, whether in bud, blooming or withering, like so many metaphors for human expressions. The work exhibited in Tokyo is not the first in the series acquired by the Japanese. One of them, titled Vase with five sunflowers (98 x 69 cm), painted in August 1888, was destroyed in Tokyo on August 6, 1945 (the day of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima), in a fire caused by US bombing.

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