Yale moves to drop museum suits

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. Photo by Nora Caplan-Bricker.

Yale moved this month to dismiss two legal suits concerning historic items in University museums.

The University filed one motion Oct. 5 to dismiss Pierre Konowaloff’s claim to ownership of “The Night Café,” a painting by Vincent Van Gogh housed in the permanent collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, and another on Oct. 16 to dismiss the Republic of Peru’s suit for the return of Inca artifacts housed in the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

In both cases, Yale is arguing that the opposition’s claims came too late and are therefore outside the statute of limitations. The Peruvian government changed its legal representation mid-August, though both the incoming and outgoing law firms declined to comment on the reason behind the switch.

Yale’s Vice President and General Counsel Dorothy Robinson said in an e-mail Friday that she thinks the University is in a strong legal position in both cases.

Peru changes counsel

In the case of the Inca artifacts, Yale is arguing it first gained control of the items when they arrived in New Haven in the 1920s, describing them in several Yale publications as part of the museum’s permanent collection.

“Decade after decade, Peru was content to let Yale hold itself out to the world as the owner of the objects,” the Oct. 16 motion reads. “[Peru] disregarded the reasonable time limits imposed by law for bringing its claims.”

Jonathan Hamilton of the Washington law firm White and Case took over as Peru’s legal representation in August, replacing William Cook, a partner at another Washington firm, DLA Piper, who has handled the case since 2007.

Both Cook and Hamilton declined to comment about the case.

The suit stems from Yale explorer Hiram Bingham III’s 1911 expedition to Machu Picchu in Cuzco, Peru, which brought the ancient Inca city to the attention of the Western world. Bingham brought back to New Haven a variety of artifacts — “primarily fragments of ceramic, metal and bone,” according to the motion — some of which were returned to Peru in a 1921 shipment while others remained in the Peabody.

The dispute over the ownership of the objects, which has resulted in a string of broken contracts and ambiguous agreements over the course of the last century, was just inches from a peaceful conclusion in 2007, when the University and the government of Peru attempted to reach a settlement.

In her e-mail Friday, Robinson said that prior to the 2008 suit the University had shown a “willingness to work out an arrangement that would not only place most of the museum quality pieces in Peru, but would also give access to the research collection for the scholarly community at Yale and elsewhere.”

But the agreement was never finalized, and in December of 2008 Peru sued for the return of the items. The suit was originally filed with a court in Washington, D.C., but moved to District of Connecticut court in July after a Washington judge ruled that the case was outside his jurisdiction.

A judge must rule on Yale’s most recent motion, either dismissing the suit or leaving it open to another round of litigation.

Luis Valdiviesco, the Peruvian Ambassador to the United States, declined to comment Sunday.

claim, counterclaim

The controversy surrounding the painting “The Night Café” also has roots in the early 20th century. Pierre Konowaloff, the descendant of a Russian aristocrat who once owned the painting, claims it is rightfully his because the Soviet government expropriated it from his family in 1918.

The Soviet government seized “The Night Café” from Konowaloff’s great-grandfather Ivan Morozov as part of the government’s mass nationalization of private property in the early 20th century. Konowaloff claims this constitutes a theft, delegitimizing any subsequent sale or purchase. Therefore, Konowaloff claims, Stephen Clark 1903, who bequeathed the painting to Yale in 1960, never actually owned it.

Clark was a trustee of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the early 1930s, he acquired the painting from the Knoedler Gallery in New York City, which had purchased it from the Matthiesen Gallery in Berlin, Germany; it was the Matthiesen Gallery that originally bought the painting from the Soviets.

Yale first responded to Konowaloff’s claims of ownership in May 2009, filing a lawsuit to assert the University’s ownership. Konowaloff responded with a counterclaim in March 2009, requesting the return of the painting and over $75,000 in damages.

Yale’s Oct. 5 motion argues that “it is well-established that a foreign nation’s taking of its own national’s property within its own borders does not violate international law,” and that the Soviet government’s original acquisition — and also Yale’s subsequent acquisition — of the painting was legal.

The motion also argues that Konowaloff’s claim came too late, since the statute of limitations for a dispute of ownership of this nature would have expired in the 1960s, three years after Yale publicized its acquisition of the painting.

“At bottom, Konowaloff offers only historical arguments, not cognizable legal claims,” the motion reads.

Konowaloff’s legal representative, Alan Gerson LAW ’76, said he and his client will dispute Yale’s assertion that the statute of limitations has expired. Gerson said Yale knew Morozov’s descendants were in France when it received Clark’s giftbut published information about the bequest containing the Van Gogh in “esoteric art journals,” not French newspapers. Since Konowaloff was unaware of the painting’s location until 2008, Gerson argued, the statute of limitations did not take effect until recently.

“That is based on the idea that a person has been negligent,” he said, referring to the applicability of the statute of limitations. “But we don’t think Yale acted in such a way to inform that they had received the painting.”

Comments

  • howardn

    Various domestic government entities seize my assets every pay period. Do you think I have a case?