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Give Us Back Our Van Gogh!

December 23, 2022
A still-life painting of a ceramic vase with a number of sunflowers in bloom against a pale yellow background

Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers (1888) by Vincent van Gogh

Mendelsohn & Co. was one of the most prestigious banks in Germany throughout the nineteenth century. At the height of its power, it was one of the major banks in Europe and served as the royal bankers for the Emperors of Russia. Though the bank managed to survive the Great Depression, the Mendelssohn family, one of Germany’s most prominent Jewish families, could not survive the new Aryanization policies imposed by the Nazi government in the 1930s. Due to policies meant to bankrupt Jewish businesses, Mendelssohn & Co. was eventually taken over and liquidated by Deutsche Bank. These policies also pressured the family into selling their art collection before escaping to Britain or the United States. But now the family is fighting back to have their art returned to them. And most recently, they’ve set their sights on what was at one point the most valuable painting in the world.

Starting in 2008, surviving family members have petitioned to have their art collection returned to them. So far, they’ve had a good deal of success. The family has since reached agreements with several museums, among them the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, allowing these works to remain in the museums in exchange for an undisclosed sum. Others, like the National Gallery of Art in Washington, have agreed to full restitution. But a little over a week ago, the family filed a suit in an Illinois district court pertaining to one of Vincent van Gogh’s most famous paintings that once belonged to their family: Vase with Fifteen Sunflowers. On March 30, 1987 at Christie’s London, Fifteen Sunflowers sold for £24.75 million (or about £65.7M / $79.5M adjusted for inflation), making it the world’s most expensive painting at the time. The Mendelssohn family claims that the buyer, Japanese insurance executive Yasuo Goto, was fully aware of the painting’s problematic provenance yet went ahead with the purchase anyway. Fifteen Sunflowers has since been permanently displayed in Tokyo at a museum operated by Goto’s company, Sompo (not to be confused with another Van Gogh Sunflower painting that environmental demonstrators attacked at London’s National Gallery).

Since the Mendelssohn family only recently filed the suit, it may be years until there’s an outcome. As has been the case in the past, the Mendelssohns are capable of compromise, so the lawsuit is not a for-sure guarantee that Fifteen Sunflowers will be leaving Japan anytime soon.