Heirs of former ‘Sunflowers’ owner sue for return of Van Gogh painting now in Tokyo

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
People look at “Sunflowers” by Vincent Van Gogh at the Sompo Museum of Art in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, in 2020.

The heirs of a former owner of one of Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” paintings, which is currently owned by Sompo Holdings, Inc. in Tokyo, has filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court, seeking the return of the painting they claim was forcibly sold amid Nazi persecution of Jews in Germany.

Sompo Holdings has countered the appeal, saying the company will vigorously defend its ownership rights to the painting.

According to the complaint filed last month in federal court in Illinois, the former Jewish owner was forced to sell “Sunflowers” by the Nazis in 1934. Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Co., one of the predecessors of Sompo Holdings, purchased the painting in 1987. The plaintiffs are seeking the return of the painting and $750 million (about ¥100 billion) in damages, claiming that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance disregarded the painting’s provenance, including its ownership history, and unjustifiably gained commercial profits and other benefits from the art.

Sompo Holdings said that it had yet to receive the complaint, but that it is ready to defend its claim to ownership of the painting, saying it is public knowledge that the company purchased the painting at a public auction and the company has exhibited the painting for more than 35 years.

“Sunflowers” made headlines when it was auctioned in London in 1987 for $39.9 million (about ¥5.8 billion based on the exchange rate at the time), a record for a painting back then. Currently, it is displayed at the Sompo Museum of Art in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo.

Under Nazi persecution, a huge number of artworks owned by Jewish people were plundered and sold off.