Yale sues to keep artwork

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.

Vincent van Gogh’s renowned 1888 painting “The Night Café,” which is housed in the Yale University Art Gallery.
Vincent van Gogh’s renowned 1888 painting “The Night Café,” which is housed in the Yale University Art Gallery.

“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.


  • Yale '12

    I'm not sure how nationalization is theft, legally speaking. (Morally speaking, of course, I do.) But on what grounds is Yale filing suit before Konowaloff does?

  • Richard

    "Konowaloff contends that the Soviet nationalization of property was illegal and, therefore, the painting should be returned to him, Morozov’s rightful heir."

    The Soviets' actions were legal. Atrocious, but legal. Sorry, Pierre.

  • Hieronymus

    Funny how relativism goes out the window when dollars (or art, in this case) are at stake. Where are all the Yalies--of the type who demand that S&B "return" Geronimo's skull--protesting in favor of the suffering Russian?

  • Bosch

    If the guy wanted to, couldn't he just walk into the art gallery and take the painting back? Happens all the time around here.

  • @Hieronymous

    @#3 / @ Hieronymous

    I always love your candid, idiotic takes on every topic. Perhaps you dont understand the difference between a historic art piece and human remains?

  • @#3

    I agree with #5.
    Perhaps you also don't understand the difference between breaking in to a tomb and accepting a piece donated to you by someone who bought it from a government that acquired it legally. Nationalization is a power that a lot of states have - you may not like it, but it remains legal. Tomb-robbing is illegal. Anywhere.

  • Pinko Commies

    The repossession was only legal if you recognize Lenin, Stalin, and their ilk as something other than authoritarian dictators.

  • mb

    I fail to see what "relativism" has to do with anything. It's the new buzzword for every stance you dislike, I guess?

  • embarrassed to be posting

    It seems unnecessary to post a comment like this for Yale students who presumably are intelligent to figure this out for themselves but either some of the other posters are dense or are intentionally trying to obfuscate.

    I would imagine that what #3 is suggesting is that theft is theft irrespective of whether it is "illegal grave robbing" or cloaked as "legal nationalization". I believe #3 is also saying that theft is theft whether the object in question has emotional/spiritual value or simply monetary value.

    I believe #3 would also be saying that individuals who defend the theft of property by the Soviet government as OK because it was "legal" (e.g. #6 and, maybe #5) would, in other cases protest things that are (or were) similarly "legal" as indefensible, but for some inexplicable reason think this particular "legality" is OK.

    #3 may also be questioning how someone can generally advocate for return of antiquities/artwork to certain groups (who may or may not be lineal descendants of the creators) as rightful owners but not artwork to its literal lineal descendant owner (who. by the way, may also have emotional and/or spiritual attachment to the art).

    At the end, of course, in this and other posts, #3 is probably attempting to point out the lack of internal consistency among those who appear to be able to rationalize any activity as long as it is consistent with their personal views, while dismissing anything that isn't, I suppose in the hope that it will make them step back and consider their illogic. Actually, I suspect #3 believes that many who do so know exactly what it is they are doing, but hopes that the posts will make those that they are trying to influence with smooth talk or seemingly rational arguments will step back and consider things more objectively or rationally.

    Or maybe I've completely missed #3's point.

  • interesting parallels?

    Wondering if Geronimo's skull was no less legally acquired under an act of state, within its borders, called Manifest Destiny, which would seem to have ordained formal as well as a privagte sense of entitlement to Indian land and culture. Hmm. Maybe Konowaloff's attorney, Gerson, should take that case when he is done with this one. He'd probably get more support for it -- everyone is sick of S&B's drag on Yale's good name over those remains. A DNA test is needed.