Yale filed suit Monday against Pierre Konowaloff, who claims to be the rightful owner of Vincent van Gogh’s renowned 1888 painting “The Night Café,” which is housed in the Yale University Art Gallery.
According to the suit, filed in the United States District Court in Connecticut, Konowaloff claims to be the heir of Ivan Morozov, a Russian aristocrat who owned the painting in 1918. Last July, Konowaloff’s attorney sent a letter to Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery, threatening legal action, according to the suit. Yale will fight to keep the painting, Reynolds told the News on Tuesday night.
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“It’s been in our collection for 50 years,” he said. “There is no wrong to be addressed.”
In December 1918, Vladimir Lenin, the leader of the Soviet government at the time, nationalized most private property, including Morozov’s art collection. His seized collection included “The Night Café.”
To raise money, the Soviets sold the painting to a German art museum in 1933, which then sold it to the Knoedler Gallery in New York City.
Stephen Clark 1903, who began to collect art after serving in the army during World War I, purchased “The Night Café” from the Knoedler Gallery in 1933 or 1934, according to the suit.
When Clark died in 1960, he bequeathed the painting to the University. Yale added the painting to its permanent collection in 1961 and hung it for public view in the gallery, garnering widespread media coverage about the donation.
Konowaloff contends that the Soviet nationalization of property was illegal and, therefore, the painting should be returned to him, Morozov’s rightful heir.
Yale disputes the argument. The University says in the suit that it wants to remove “the cloud that Konowaloff has put on Yale’s good title to ‘The Night Café.’ ”
“It was accepted at the time, as it is now, that the sales by the Soviet government were valid, as were later acquisitions of the paintings,” the suit says.
Even if the sale was questionable, Yale argues that Konowaloff has no claim to the painting because the three-year statute of limitations to sue has long expired.
“Mr. Konowaloff is the first in his family to have brought to Yale a claim to ‘The Night Café,’ although the painting’s whereabouts have been known for many decades, having been widely publicized in this country and abroad since its acquisition by Yale,” Yale spokeswoman Helaine Klasky said in an e-mail message.
Past claims by descendants of pre-revolutionary Russian art collectors have been made and rejected by English, French, Italian, German and American courts, Klasky added.
Reynolds questioned how far back Konowaloff was planning to go.
“Why doesn’t he talk to Putin?” Reynolds said.
“The Night Café,” which scholars regard as an Impressionist masterpiece, is one of two Van Gogh paintings owned by the gallery.
“It is a very important painting to Yale and to the history of art in general,” School of Art Dean Robert Storr told the News on Tuesday night.
In 2008, the gallery held a special exhibition of two other Van Gogh paintings, “Starry Night” and “Cypresses,” which were on loan from the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum, respectively. “The Night Café” then traveled back to the MoMA with “Starry Night” to be shown in a large scale Van Gogh retrospective.
Zeynep Pamuk contributed reporting.