Letter: Fault isn’t in keeping art, but in acquisition

Re: “Yale sues to keep artwork” (March 25). I don’t think anyone would be able to seriously question the legality of Yale’s ownership of the famous Van Gogh painting “The Night Cafe.” This “object d’art” will stay within Yale no matter what Pierre Konowaloff thinks. What could be questioned, however, are the ethical standards the West did not follow while purchasing Russian art from the Soviet government.

It is not a secret that the Soviet Union sold many valuable objects of art at bargain prices to Western financiers and industrialists in the 1930s. It sold “nationalized” (read: expropriated) paintings, icons, gold, Faberge eggs, imperial jewels, etc., in order to raise hard currency in the 1930s. The USSR needed dollars to buy stuff abroad because the Stalin’s collectivization and other “innovations” caused a collapse of agricultural and industrial output.

It is not a secret that after the 1917 revolution in Russia the Communists looted churches and expropriated galleries and palaces of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The property owners, aristocracy and clergymen were killed (like the Russian imperial family) or perished in the Gulag (unless they escaped to the West).

In the classic Greta Garbo movie “Ninotchka” three Soviet officials make their way to Paris to sell off imperial jewels to raise money for the Soviet government. In this movie, the issue of this kind of “nationalization” is made a kernel of a good comedy.

But watching the movie, one should not forget the brutal reality of the Stalinist regime. The purchases of the “nationalized” Russian art in London, New York, Paris and Berlin in the 1930s, while not necessarily illegal, could not have passed the ethical purchase test today (if such a test existed), particularly considering the fact the Bolsheviks themselves often referred to “expropriation” of property and made no secret of it.

Igor Biryukov

March 26

The writer is a technical assistant for Yale University Dining Services.

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