A Japanese insurance firm that paid a record sum for one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers paintings in 1987 says it “categorically rejects” claims it was aware the artwork was taken from its original Jewish owner by Nazi Germany in the 1930s and will resist a lawsuit brought by the heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to return it. Three descendants of Mendelssohn-Bartholdy filed a suit in Chicago in December against Tokyo-based Sompo Holdings, alleging the company knew the artwork was a “casualty of Nazi policies” when a predecessor of Sompo Holdings Inc bought the painting for £24.75 million (the equivalent of US$30 million today) at Christie’s auction house in London. The final figure that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Co paid exceeded the presale estimate of £9.5 million (US$11.5 million), making global headlines. The painting was later moved to the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo, where it remains on display. The insurer told This Week in Asia it would fight the lawsuit. “It is a matter of public record that Yasuda Fire & Marine Insurance Company bought the Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers work at public auction from Christie’s in London in 1987. “For over 35 years, the Sompo Museum of Fine Art in Tokyo, Japan , has proudly displayed Sunflowers ,” it added. “Sompo categorically rejects the complaint’s allegations of wrongdoing, the claims made, and intends to vigorously defend its ownership rights in Sunflowers .” In their complaint to the Chicago court, the three plaintiffs insist the company had been “recklessly indifferent” to the painting’s past and were demanding the artwork either be returned to them or that Sompo pay US$750 million in punitive damages. With neither side apparently willing to give ground, the case is expected to move forward in the courts. Given the willingness of other companies, art institutions and individuals in recent years to return stolen art, a protracted and high-profile case is likely to be damaging to Sompo Holdings. Born in Berlin in 1875, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was a successful banker who invested heavily in art. His collection also included pieces by Pablo Picasso , Claude Monet, Edouard Manet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the family was quickly targeted due to their religion , with laws designed to force Jews from their jobs and other positions in society, as well as seize their assets. Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was successful in sending some of his prized collection overseas, where they could be sold instead of being appropriated by the Nazis. Sunflowers is understood to have been sold in Berlin in 1934. In an interview with The Independent newspaper, one of the plaintiffs in the case, Julius H. Schoeps, said he believed his great-uncle sold the paintings to fund the escape of his family. Instead, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy died in Berlin at the age of 59 in May 1935, reportedly after being attacked by a Nazi thug. The plaintiffs’ 98-page complaint says he “never intended to transfer any of his paintings and that he was forced to transfer them only because of threats and economic pressures by the Nazi government”. It also states that Sompo Holdings or its predecessor failed to investigate suspicions the painting may have been looted from a Jewish owner in the 1930s out of concern such an investigation might confirm that fact. It is not the first time this work from the Sunflowers series has caused controversy, with an expert claiming in 1998 that the painting was a fake.