In response to a March lawsuit that asserts Yale’s ownership of Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Night Café,” Pierre Konowaloff – who claims he is the painting’s rightful owner – has now filed a counterclaim against the University.
Konowaloff filed both his response to Yale’s suit and a counterclaim last Thursday, asking that the court order Yale to give him the painting and more than $75,000 in damages. Yale filed a lawsuit against Konowaloff two months ago to assert ownership of the painting.
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Both parties agree that “The Night Café” was acquired by the Russian aristocrat Ivan Morozov in 1908 and that in 1918, when most Russian private property was nationalized, the Soviet government took control of the painting. Konowaloff says he is the sole heir of Morozov.
Yale argues in its suit that the nationalization of the painting by the Russian government was legal and therefore all sales of the painting later were also legal. Moreover, Yale’s suit says that even if the sale was questionable 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 in March.
But in his counterclaim, Konowaloff says that the painting is “cultural property,” the seizure of which by governments, he argues, is prohibited by international law. Because Morozov received no compensation for the painting, the counterclaim says, the nationalization of the painting should be classified as theft.
According to this interpretation, the Russian government never had a good title to the painting and therefore Yale, which Konowaloff argues has the burden of proving that it has a good title, cannot have a good title.
In his response, Konowaloff – who is represented by Allan Gerson LAW ’76 – says that he did not learn of Yale’s possession of the painting until 2008 and had no reason to know that Yale posed the painting. Therefore, he says, the statute of limitations has not expired.
But Yale says in its complaint that because the painting has been shown in hundreds of books and other media with citations showing that it belonged to Yale, Konowaloff and his family should have known long before 2008 that Yale had the painting.
“The prominence of Yale’s ownership of The Night Café had been extraordinary, owing primarily to the fact that it is one of the most important paintings in the history of art,” Yale’s claim states. “Under these circumstances, the fact that Konowaloff and his predecessors-in-interest failed until 2008 to assert to Yale the possibility of a claim to the Painting squarely implicates the purposes of statutes of limitations in this context: to permit those to whom property has been bequeathed to enjoy quiet title by weeding out stale claims and punishing non-diligent claimants for sleeping on their putative rights.”
To counter this, Konowaloff says Yale should have suspected that the painting was looted. It was Yale’s responsibility when it acquired the painting in the 1960s to make sure it had a good title and to seek out the heirs of Morozov to make sure they were compensated for the painting, which it did not do, he says.
Konowaloff has requested that a jury hear the claims.
Yale received “The Night Café” from Stephen Clark 1903 after his death in 1960.