HHR Wins Dismissal Of Lawsuit Over Van Gogh Sunflowers Painting

Hughes Hubbard & Reed LLP


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HHR advised Sompo Holdings, the owner of one of Vincent van Gogh's iconic Sunflowers paintings, and its affiliates in winning dismissal of an action to recover the painting (valued at $250 million)...
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HHR advised Sompo Holdings, the owner of one of Vincent van Gogh's iconic Sunflowers paintings, and its affiliates in winning dismissal of an action to recover the painting (valued at $250 million) plus $1.7 billion in damages brought by descendants of prominent German Jewish art collector Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who sold the painting through a Parisian art dealer in 1934 after the Nazi regime came to power.

In 1888, van Gogh left Paris for the south of France, where he began work on a series of oil paintings of sunflowers. During that time, van Gogh suffered a psychological break, and famously cut off part of his own left ear. He died by suicide in 1890. After van Gogh's death, Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, a prominent German banker and collector of modern art, acquired one of van Gogh's sunflowers paintings ("Sunflowers"). Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was a member of a well-known family whose relatives included composer Felix Mendelssohn and Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Because he was Jewish, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and his family were persecuted when the Nazis came to power in Germany. Beginning in the mid-1930s, the Nazi regime subjected Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to increasingly severe sanctions.

In 1934, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy placed "Sunflowers" on consignment with Paul Rosenberg, a Parisian art dealer. Rosenberg sold the painting to Edith Beatty, a British-American heiress. Decades later, in 1987, the Beatty family sold "Sunflowers" in a highly publicized auction at Christie's auction house in London. The buyer was Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company, a Japanese insurance company and the predecessor-in-interest of Firm client Sompo, also a leading Japanese insurer. Yasuda paid $40 million for the painting – a record price at the time.

"Sunflowers" remained on display at the Sompo Museum of Art in Japan until 2001, when Sompo sent it abroad as part of an international van Gogh exhibition. From Sept. 22, 2001, to Jan. 13, 2002, the painting was exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a follow-on four-month exhibition in Amsterdam, it returned to Tokyo later that year, where it has remained since then.

In 2016, Congress enacted the Holocaust Expropriated Art Recovery Act of 2016 (HEAR Act). The HEAR Act preempts state law statutes of limitations for actions to recover property stolen or misappropriated by the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.

In December 2022, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy's descendants, seeking to use the reopened statute of limitations established by the HEAR Act, filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to recover "Sunflowers" (valued at $250 million) plus $1.7 billion in damages.

On June 3, U.S. federal judge Jeremy C. Daniel dismissed the case, ruling that the court has no jurisdiction over Sompo Holdings and its affiliates, despite the painting's temporary exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago from 2001 to 2002.

The case garnered coverage in Bloomberg Law, The Art Newspaper, ARTnews and artnet.

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