In the 1930s, Berlin banker Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was forced to sell seven paintings by Vincent van Gogh under Nazi pressure. His descendants and lawful heirs are now suing the Japanese company, Sompo, that owns Sunflowers (1889) today. In a 98-page document, their legal representatives mapped out the story of corporate losses and provenance. This is a continuation from Part 1.
In the 1980s and 90s, Christie’s experts often noted that Vincent van Gogh was very interested in Japanese art. His graphic style was inspired by a personal a collection of more than 600 Japanese prints held in Paris. Impressionist art was therefore used as a strategy to create dialogue between the Japanese collectors looking to buy western art and Westerners abroad…and it worked.
On March 30th, 1987, at Christie’s London, Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh sold for £24.75 million ($39.9 million) to the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company. It was expected to go for £9.5 million, with an in-house specialist holding what he thought may be the closing bid. Even this was nearly $3 million more than the last Van Gogh painting, Landscape with Rising Sun, auctioned at the then highest-ever price, $9.9 million. At the time, $39.9 million became the highest amount ever paid for a work of art.
This record-breaking Sunflowers sale ushered in a new era of Japanese pride in Impressionist art. The following year, Japanese moneylender Yasumichi Morishita had acquired 7% of Christie’s shares, one of a select few elite Japanese businessmen able to borrow against their holdings to buy artworks. By 1989, insiders estimated that one-third of all art activity in Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary art, both private and at auction, was Japanese.
Two years after the Sunflowers sale, Japanese paper magnate Ryoei Saito set two new records within a week with another Van Gogh purchase, Portrait of Dr. Gachet for $82.5 million at Christie’s.
According to the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy filings, Yasuda was believed to receive $160 million’s worth of public relations value immediately from the Sunflowers acquisition. Today it is held under a company called Sompo.
But Sunflowers has since stirred up extensive controversy.
After an accusation of forgery, provenance research was conducted to determine the painting’s origins—and even that was controversial. Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov of the University of Toronto traced the painting back to Vincent’s sister-in-law, Jo Bonger, sold in 1894 by Père Tanguy to Emile Schuffenecker for 300 francs.
Schuffenecker restored the painting, but his reputation for accurate reproductions caused an art world uproar, with art historian Geraldine Norman implying it was fake on British television in October 1998, per art writer and Van Gogh expert Martin Bailey, who continues to cover the artist with a column today.
Welsh-Ovcahrov’s research in the 90s successfully traced Sunflowers was known to its first exhibition in 1901 at the Bernheim Jeune gallery in Paris. But in 2016 her book was disputed to include inauthentic works.
A 2007 article by ArtNews cited the 1996 catalogue raisonné creator Jan Hulskey, who wrote, “the number of paintings attributed to Van Gogh far exceeds the amount of work he could have done in the seventy days…before his death.”
ArtNews asserted that neither Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which ended up in the Musée d’Orsay, nor the Sunflowers acquired by Yasuda were mentioned in van Gogh’s letters or his inventory. They also wrote that Schuffenecker was known to have made copies or studies of van Gogh works. His brother, Amédée, wrote in 1936 at his passing that there were “newly made van Goghs” in Schuffenecker’s inventory.
Notably, media covering the 1998 provenance dispute does not include Paul Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Two years after the provenance story broke, in 2000, Yasuda prepared to show Sunflowers at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. The legal records accuse Yasuda representatives of knowing, or at least suspecting, that the painting was “a casualty of Nazi policies,” but not investigating these suspicions further for fear of confirmation. These documents lambast the corporate CEO’s purporting of ethical business dealings. Thus, to the plaintiffs, the papers used to import Sunflowers to Chicago were seen as a deliberate concealment.
Today, Sunflowers is a quiet part of the permanent collection of the Yasuda Kasai company, housed at the Sompo Museum of Art. Across its subsidiaries, the plaintiffs believe the umbrella company of Sompo Holdings Inc. has over $100 billion in total assets, and “commercially exploited” the painting for continued material gain.
“So committed, Yasuda recklessly – if not purposefully – ignored the provenance of Sunflowers that 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,” the filings state. “…Sompo Holdings has made a mockery of its vaunted public commitments to behaving ethically, honestly, and transparently and to corporate social responsibility and protecting international human rights as a basis for inviting the reliance and trust of its stakeholders, prospective customers, and the public.”
Sho Tanka, a spokesperson of Sompo, enthusiastically refuted this in Courthouse News. The painting was acquired at public auction, and certainly, this long provenance had many witnesses without anyone decrying its heritage as Mendelssohn-Barthodly’s for close to a century.
“Sompo categorically rejects any allegation of wrongdoing and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers.”
Fraught though this Sunflowers’ history may be, another from the series was recently the subject of a climate change protest at the National Gallery in London. Just Stop Oil activists Anna Holland and Phoebe Plummer leveraged Van Gogh’s life in poverty to call out the ultra-rich, and his depiction of nature to speak out against dried-out sunflower fields and the impact of warming temperatures.
Under the Just Stop Oil lens, the battles of the ultra-rich for a multi-million-dollar masterpiece pale in comparison to the imminent threat of priceless and irreparable climate destruction.
There is still yet another van Gogh currently under litigation. Two days after Schoeps et al v Sompo Holdings Inc et al was filed, so too was Silver et al v Basil and Elise Goulandris Foundation, another Van Gogh case for Holocaust repatriation.