Counterclaim filed for ‘Night Café’ ownership

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.

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.

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.


  • yalie

    Nice summary of the arguments..

    It stinks, but I think its safe to say that the Soviet seizure was legal under Soviet laws. Kind of how nation-state system works.

    Also, the counter, "Yale should have suspected that the painting was looted" is kind of lame.

    Is there really any chance Konowaloff wins this thing??

  • van gogh fan

    If we honor restitution of art in the case of illegal dispossession under fascism, the same principle should be applied to the dispossession of art under the totalitarian Communist regime. There can be no double standards on this question and Yale should return the painting to its rightful owner. Similar restitution occurred when the Austrian government surrendered several paintings by Klimt to the rightful heirs.

  • roflcopter

    i dunno why everyone likes van gogh so much. aliza schvartz could have done better

  • Reality Check

    You can hardly equate Soviet rule with the kleptocracy of Goering and Hitler when it came to art. Goering and Hitler sought every piece of high status art in the countries Germany invaded for their personal collections. They used their military might to target Jews and even non-Jews to get control of desired pieces. Read "The Forger's Spell" to get a good flavor of it. Yes, the Soviets were a terrible and cruel dictatorship, but it did not involve the degree of personal gain when it came to art--their goals were more about paranoia and fear and social engineering. They were a recognized international government for decades. What they did, they did to their own people as bad as it was, which is very different from invading other countries and stealing stuff to put in your own basement.

  • yalesnark

    Excuse me, but the claimant is presumably an opportunist. The current Russian government is the legal successor of that of the USSR, and international states have long worked on the assumption that even Stalin's decisions were technically legal, regardless of whether or not he was a monster. If such precedents were overturned, the result would be chaos. Indeed, the National Gallery is Washington, which bought its best Old Masters from Stalin out of the Hermitage Museum during the Great Depression, would have to send home its best masterpieces.

    There is good news, though: I don't know a legal mind who thinks that this guy can actually win.

  • yale80

    Maybe he just wants a settlement, but at this point it doesn;t sound like he has much of a case.

  • anti-imperialist

    I'm sorry. Looted art is and remains looted art. I'm sick of hearing all the imperialist self-justifications of the US. No wonder no one respects the US in the world. Let's also not return Yale's stolen art treasures to Peru and insist we are infallible.

  • yalesnark

    No. 7, your logic is flawed.

    How does the issue of the rightful ownership surrounding Van Gogh's painting have anything to do with "imperialism"? After all, if this "looted work" was returned to its "rightful" owner, would that not constitute imperialism of a certain kind? It would mean an American court would be saying that the USSR-Russian government and its historical decisions were invalid. It would be, in essence, overturning established international and foreign law principles, and basically invaliding current Russian property law. It would, therefore, be a sort of imperial interference in its own right.

    Let's not forget that Stalin sold art from Russian (mainly Romaninov imperial) collections because he thought, ideologically, that art was irrelevant, and because he needed money to defend Russia during WWII. The art bought from Russia was hardly plundered by an imperialist nation. It was sold willingly for money, and good money at that during the Depression.

    Something else to think about: Perhaps if Stalin hadn't raised funds to fight the Nazis, Russia would have succumbed to a real imperialist menace. I presume that even you, no. 7, would acknowledge that Nazis are worse than Americans.

    You know that Van Gogh was a Dutch painter, too, do you not? By your own standard, the Russian collecting of Dutch works might be considered imperialist, wouldn't it?

    But, then, I realize that you are not making a rational argument. You are advancing a resentful, anti-american claim. I realize that the Peruvian case may be different, but your response as regards the Van Gogh is baseless, emotional, and uninformed.

  • BR'10

    As a Yalie, I want the painting to stay in the collection. But I would be PISSED OFF if I were that guy.

  • Recent Alum

    "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."

    So if Harold Koh had his way, Yale would need to return the painting.

  • Dr. McCoy to Mr. Spock

    Yes, let's find more legal excuses and hold on to our stuff. We're really good at that. It worked with the WMDs. Might makes it right. That is our credo and we are proud of it.

  • in response to 8

    Given that communism was vilified in the US in the 1920 (Red Scare) and virulently persecuted during the McCarthy era, I find it odd that someone would claim that the Soviet Union was a legitimate state. Remember Reagan's challenge to Gorbachev. Yale knew full well who they were dealing with and should not have accepted such tainted art. Actors like Paul Robeson lost their standing in the US for merely visiting the USSR and yet Yale happily bought art during the cold war era.

  • In response to 12

    If you read the article Yale did not purchase the painting. It was a gift of Stephen Clark in the 1960s

  • Come on

    The last place I would ever expect a piece of looted art to show up is at a university with a history of art department. Shame on Yale University.

  • Yale Alum

    Sounds like #8 is the only one who reads the YDN with any awareness of law - namely the act of state doctrine. This guy is clearly an opportunist who saw the chance to bank a multi-million dollar Van Gogh. Night Cafe is NOT "looted" art. Geez readers - did you learn anything at Yale? My four years there taught me that most bleeding heart Yalies would give away the entire university if they could.